Posted June 2, 2020
By Denetra Walker, Ph.D. student, Denetra on Twitter
In August, I will present the following findings from my award-winning paper, There’s a Camera Everywhere: How Citizen Journalists, Cell Phones, and Technology
Shape Coverage of Police Shootings, virtually at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.
However, my work on media coverage, police brutality/shootings and the role of journalists
is far from over. The issue continues. This work is my passion.
My hope is that there is some change in our system so that another black life does
not become a hashtag. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of research for me to conduct
into this matter. There are also continuous cries for justice. My hope is that our
country continues to shift gears and we can start to heal and rebuild. I do not have
the answer. Unfortunately, none of us do. But I, as well as others will keep doing
George Floyd’s Death: The Boiling Point
As America continues to struggle with a pandemic — 103,000 lives lost and counting
— a longstanding issue has explicitly resurfaced to plague the nation: racism. Following
the tragic death of 46-year-old George Floyd, a black man caught on witness camera
being pinned down by several officers, the nation is reeling. Floyd’s untimely death
proves to be the boiling point to reveal an ugly reality. His death has been televised
and shared throughout social media. Now, the raw emotion pours across the country
with messages overflowing that #BlackLivesMatter. “I can’t breathe,” the final words
called out by Floyd, echoes across media platforms.
On May 25, a Minneapolis, Minnesota store clerk called police officers on Floyd for
$20 forgery allegations. The arresting officers accused Floyd of resisting arrest.
However, the cellphone video showed a different account.
Derek Chauvin, a 44-year-old white police officer, was seen kneeling on Floyd’s neck
for almost nine minutes. Two of those minutes, Floyd lay lifeless as passersby can
be heard demanding Chauvin and other officers allow Floyd relief to breathe. He did
not move. Now, the nation is moving in chaos.
George Floyd has become a household name and a hashtag. His final words and name plastered
on shirts, written in stories, chanted as thousands march along the streets, and graffitied
across the streets of major cities across the nation. George Floyd has become the
embodiment of a reality that makes many of us take a long, deep sigh as his death
is all too familiar. It happened again. And it was caught on camera, again.
Long History of Systemic Injustices
The injustices continue in a long lineage of black men lost at the hands of white
officers. Except now, the videos are mobilizing a new front and allowing another account
of these stories. The George Floyd story has hit home for many of us, including myself.
I am watching as a black mother of a black son, an aunt, a sister, a former journalist,
a college instructor, doctoral student and a scholar. There have been calls across
the nation for everyone to unite, but there are so many ways people are expressing
this pain. People are hurt, angry and tired. Now, we watch protests turn violent and
police with riot gear march to take the burning cities back. Meanwhile, journalists
are on the frontlines of it. They too are risking their lives.
Before #GeorgeFloyd became a hashtag, there were hashtags of black lives lost, which
included #TrayvonMartin, #EricGarner, #TamirRice, #MichaelBrown, #WalterScott, #PhilandoCastile,
#KeithLamontScott, #BothamJean and #AtatianaJefferson. I could go as far back as the
1991 beating of Rodney King caught on tape by a bystander which later turned into
the L.A. riots or perhaps the 1999 death of Amadou Diallo, who was killed by New York
police officers while reaching for his wallet. Regardless of the time, journalists
have told these stories.
Some of the incidents above, I have professionally covered and remember the different
emotions in the newsroom. I was in the newsroom anxiously watching as George Zimmerman
was acquitted in Trayvon Martin’s murder. I wrote countless stories as Ferguson happened.
I sent crews for continuous coverage in the shooting death of Walter Scott by ex-officer
Now, I research the journalists who cover these stories. They are caught in the middle
of chaos between police officers and protestors haunted by a long, dark past. Journalists
are being criticized and attacked while telling these stories. News crews are out
for hours, as directed by their management teams, in the name of journalism. I am
watching as recent events include the arrest of a black and Latino CNN reporter Omar
Jimenez live on air, a Louisville crew hit by rubber pellets, and a local Columbia
reporter, Miranda Parnell, who left protests after she was hit in the head with a
rock. I even read updates from friends who posted they were safe at home while their
CNN work building was being vandalized in Atlanta.
In my research, I talked to journalists who shared their reality of being in the middle
of protests that turned violent with tear gas and even shooting incidents near the
crew. I wanted to understand the experiences of journalists with this controversial
topic. They told me much more, including how the stories about black men being killed
spread through social media as captured by citizen journalists. They expressed that
technology shaped their coverage in many ways.
My Findings: Social Media, Cell Phones and Citizen Journalists Shape News Coverage
For this study, 10 journalists across the nation were interviewed. They covered some
of the most publicized police shootings in recent history, from Michael Brown in Ferguson,
Missouri, to Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. The journalists shared
their experiences about several aspects, including the race of the officer as well
as the constant over-policing and subsequent deaths of black men. They expressed the
raw emotion of continuously seeing and covering these incidents, sometimes for weeks
at a time. They were adamant about being “objective” in their storytelling and getting
the story “right.” My research also found several themes around how technology was
the catalyst for this story. Social media, cellphone videos and citizen journalists
undoubtedly shifted the narrative.
Traditionally, journalists have professional routines they follow to make calls known
as beat checks from trusted sources (officials) such as police officers. However,
after talking to the journalists, one thing was certain: Their storytelling accounts
based on the official account of police was changing. It was changing because now
cellphone video was being released that gave a different account from what officials
One journalist told me, “It’s easy to side with police” and that “Police are the good
guys.” This was something expressed to me from several journalists that “society tends
to side with police.” I found this to be a common thread with several of the journalists
who had different experience levels, demographics and backgrounds. Due to their routines,
they needed police to get an “official account” to accurately tell their stories.
But this was causing confusion in the trust of their relationship. One journalist
said, “Now things are being captured on video. And when, at first, it was easy to
say that this guy threatened an officer. Or maybe he or she did whatever. But now
that things are being captured on video, people can’t say those things and run away
Technology and the widespread access to social media also shifted this conversation.
Journalists told me over and over how moments after a shooting happens, it has the
power to go “viral nationwide.” They talked about how technology has changed things.
This was an unsettling power that journalists balanced. One photojournalist said if
an “officer-involved shooting happened, five minutes later it’s on Twitter, it’s online,
it’s everywhere. People have it up before we get there.”
Another journalist shared this insight: “I think social media helps to drive an increase
in awareness about when these things happen. Like Philando Castile with his girlfriend
being on her phone part of the time and able to actually show what happened. While
hearing about what happened would bring a bunch of anger and passion across the country
with hearing about that, actually, kind of seeing him slumped over like that and hearing
what she was saying and the little girl in the backseat — there wouldn’t have been as much outcry, I don’t think without seeing and hearing
all of that without social media, technology.”
The journalists were caught in the middle – tweeting, reporting, with an adrenaline
rush to get information out to the public as fast as possible. A journalist who covered
Ferguson said, “I was such an active person on social media. I was just recording
stuff. Like I was just recording stuff sometimes and just … running. There are times
when shots rang out and I would just duck behind a car, like with a group of other
people. Kind of waiting for it to end and I was still recording.”
A 30-year veteran reporter who has covered countless police shootings mentioned how
“there is a camera everywhere” and almost everyone has a phone in their pockets. He
“If not for that cellphone capturing the Walter Scott shooting, that case could’ve
had a much different outcome, much different outcome. And it probably would have,
because, let’s face it, American society has tended to default to the side of law
enforcement in these situations quite frequently.”
Another reporter agreed, saying, “You saw a man walking away, running away from a
police officer and he was shot in the back. Some things you don’t know what happened
around it necessarily, but seeing something like that is jarring. And it’s hard to
Several of the journalists brought up the Walter Scott shooting. Scott was shot in
2015 after being pulled over by ex-officer Michael Slager. This story changed when
a passerby Feidin Santana recorded the incident. It showed Scott had his back turned
and was running away when he was shot several times. This challenged the original
account from Slager. After the video was released, Slager was fired, charged and convicted,
and is currently serving time in prison.
Overall, the journalists were complimentary of their relationships with police officers
and the public, even though social media was shifting it. Many of them suggested that
police officers go out in the communities and get to know people before a negative
incident happens, such as a police shooting.
The (traditional) journalists were split amongst their thoughts about citizen journalists.
One journalist called citizen journalists “an asset” that help to keep “everybody
on their A-game.” Another said, “I think it is incredibly helpful to have citizen
journalists. I really do. I think the more cameras, the better.”
Meanwhile, one reporter mentioned how some may confuse influencers who have large
social media followings with journalists. Another said he was concerned as, “Information
from citizen journalists needs to be vetted and verified and everything else before
really running with it.” A news manager who I interviewed said some reports from citizen
journalists could “hurt the view of the media.” The concern here was the spread of
Another aspect found within my research is how cellphones, drones and Facebook Lives
allowed the journalists to tell stories faster. A news manager said, “Technology has
definitely advanced in the past couple of years to make our storytelling for these
types of things easier and more visual.” I found technology also gave journalists
a feeling of liberation which freed them from the constraints of traditional heavy
equipment. The journalists had smaller technologies and faster avenues to tell their
stories. This meant the clarity of the video and the sound from the scene was not
as professional. It seems accessibility has superseded production quality.
Teaching Future Journalists
As instructors, there are some lessons we can apply to the real world and in our classrooms.
There are “eyes everywhere.” It is important to train future journalists to live and
work in a technical society which involves this fact. It is a different world from
the one in which many journalists and instructors were trained to work. As one journalist
mentioned, “everyone has these incredible devices” which can record anyone at a moment’s
Another journalist says, “The way we consume news now is much faster, and digital
media plays a huge role in that, in how you can get messages about certain breaking
news situations right in the palm of your hand … on your phone.”
We are training future journalists to be mindful of the words they say, the stories
they cover, the people they choose to interview, as well as the angle of their stories.
Journalists’ voices matter. We are training the next generation of journalists to
understand technology but also be responsible in how they use it. Recent stories including
George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and even Breonna Taylor remind us we are also tasked with
training future journalists to be conscious of a diverse world despite subconscious
thoughts. Our society is also filled with stereotypes, which several journalists mentioned
within the interviews. The need for diversity is important. Media ethics has always
been important, but now it is paramount. J-schools around the country should offer
continuous lessons with diversity and equity matters in their curriculum. Newsrooms
should be accountable to understanding the importance of diversity.
Journalists are not the judge of labeling the public, but they do. For example, their
decision to use words such as protests, riots, or looters, matter. These words make
an impact to how society is covered and perceived. We as a collective must also be
cognizant of our biases.
Future journalists are facing a much different world that is evolving every day. It
is a reality that current journalists are continuing to shift and conform to work
within. Social media accounts, technology and cell phone videos are not going away.
The platforms are growing and the journalists are aware of this. So now we must find
a way to coexist as an industry.
Denetra Walker is a second-year doctoral student in the School of Journalism and Mass
Communications. She studies journalistic roles in a digital age with an emphasis on
race and media, as well as social justice issues. Prior to this, she worked in television
news. She is from Houston, Texas.