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  • Denetra Walker teaches students at the Digital Media Academy

    Denetra Walker teaching students at the college's Digital Media Academy.

How citizen journalists, cell phones and technology shape coverage of police shootings

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 the work.

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 Michael Slager.

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 were saying.

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 with it.”

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 later said, 

“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 defend that.”

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 misinformation.

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 notice.

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

Denetra Walker

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.


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