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Charlottesville Sparks Rise in Citizen Journalism
Posted On September 12, 2017
The power of the internet to both disrupt and revolutionize is perhaps clearest in the field of journalism. The role of everyday citizens in bringing fresh perspectives to events has become more common—and essential. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, individual bloggers were identified as key resources as events unfolded. With the recent violence in Charlottesville, Va., these citizen efforts are showing signs of deep commitment, broad-based networking, and long-term resilience.

The Emergence of Citizen Journalism

In 2005, the Poynter Institute’s Steve Outing described citizen journalism as being composed of 11 layers, while a year later, MediaShift’s Mark Glaser wrote:

The tools of broadcast media have gone from owning paper mills, presses, million-dollar transmitters and broadcast licenses, to having a cheap PC or a mobile phone in one’s pocket. That gives everyone the ability to have a direct rapport with the news as either a consumer or a producer, instantaneously. This is like the advent of literacy: it threatened elites and sometimes created problems. But it empowered individuals and led to a far better world. The new literacy from digital media will do the same, even as it creates new problems. Ultimately, I believe it is a positive thing for journalism, because it enables something journalism has lacked: competition from the very public we serve.

In an article in ThoughtCo, journalist Tony Rogers notes, “Citizen journalism was once hailed as a revolution that would make news-gathering a more democratic process—one that would no longer solely be the province of professional reporters. While citizen journalists empower local communities and fill in the gaps of mainstream media, citizen journalism remains a work in progress. One problem is that citizen journalism has been marred by non-fact-checked, inaccurate reporting, like the political reports that further divide Americans in today’s toxic political culture. With inaccurate reporting, the audience is left not knowing who or what to believe.”

Democratizing the World

“For true democracy to work, people need easy access to independent, diverse sources of news and information,” the Democracy Now! news program explains on its About page. “But the last two decades have seen unprecedented corporate media consolidation. The U.S. media was already fairly homogeneous in the early 1980s: some fifty media conglomerates dominated all media outlets, including television, radio, newspapers, magazines, music, publishing and film. In the year 2000, just six corporations dominated the U.S. media. In addition, corporate media outlets in the U.S. are legally responsible to their shareholders to maximize profits.”

Democracy Now! has developed what 20 years ago would have been considered a revolutionary model: It is funded entirely by listeners, viewers, and foundations and does not accept advertisers, corporate sponsorships, or government assistance in order to preserve its independence. This allows the program to provide “access to people and perspectives rarely heard in the U.S. corporate-sponsored media, including independent and international journalists, ordinary people from around the world who are directly affected by U.S. foreign policy, grassroots leaders and peace activists, artists, academics and independent analysts.”

In a move that he calls “a victory for non-profit journalism and a reminder that public service remains the highest calling of a free press,” Curt Guyette, investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan, was given the Michigan Journalist of the Year award by the Michigan Press Association for his dogged work to uncover the toxic contamination of the water supply of Flint, Mich.—a story that was largely ignored by the traditional press and was denied for 2 years by government officials who continued to assert that the Flint water system was safe.

Citizen journalism is now a global phenomenon, with excellent websites listed on SourceWatch. For example, Keegan Stephan is a New York-based blogger who has thoroughly covered Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and other movements. Attempts by Native Americans and others to stop the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline were largely ignored until grassroots efforts mobilized hundreds of thousands to sign petitions, protest, and ultimately convince the Obama administration to kill the project. (The current president reversed that decision and revived the project in March.) In addition, CNN hosts iReport, a citizen journalism site that “invite[s] people around the world to upload stories, photos and videos that they think deserve attention from a wider news audience.”  

Charlottesville, 2017

A recap: The rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12 protesting the removal of Confederate monuments drew a large number of counter-protesters. Tensions rose, and in connection with the melee that followed, one counter-protester and two police officers were killed, and 19 others were injured. The openness of the participating hate groups in their choice of dress, chanting, and signs further ignited counter-protesters and bloggers. Pictures, videos, and reports were being instantly uploaded to Twitter and other social media sites for a global audience.

Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency, saying at a news conference that he had a message for “all the white supremacists and the Nazis who came into Charlottesville today: Go home. You are not wanted in this great commonwealth.” The president’s comments about the event were seen by many as providing less-than-clear moral leadership: “We’re closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia. We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides.” Rather than calming the situation, his comments seemed to only heighten the anger and frustration.

Seeking a Brand of Justice

As NPR reported in the aftermath, these protesters “didn’t wear hoods as they chanted ‘Jews will not replace us.’ They weren’t hiding their faces as they waved Confederate flags, racist signs and swastikas. They looked straight at a sea of cameras as they made the Nazi salute.” This meant that their pictures could be taken and posted online, and many began to request that people help identify the protesters in the pictures. In short order, the Twitter account Yes, You’re Racist and hundreds of other social media sites included photos or short videos from the scene. The ACLU of Virginia released a video showing a man, later identified as Richard Preston, firing a gun near a crowd after yelling a racial slur.

One activist effort attempts to find, archive, and make freely available whatever videos exist from Charlottesville. Bellingcat, calling itself “the home of online investigations,” “uses open source and social media investigation to investigate a variety of subjects, from Mexican drug lords to conflicts being fought across the world. Bellingcat brings together contributors who specialise in open source and social media investigation, and creates guides and case studies so others may learn to do the same.”

The Charlottesville database (see image below) focuses on user-generated videos, including “those from livestreamers (such as Faith J. Goldy), participants, activists, and semi-amateur news distributors (such as Unicorn Riot), and [has] avoided the video materials published from large news organizations, such as the BBC, RT, Voice of America, and so on,” according to Bellingcat’s Aric Toler. “The primary reason for this is because news footage from professional news organizations is unlikely to be lost, while user-generated content can easily be deleted and disappear from the internet forever. Additionally, we have saved metadata from the videos in case they are deleted, including the title and video description. Nearly all of the videos in this database have been saved by the Bellingcat staff, and we will eventually provide a third-party link to a backup copy of each video on a file sharing service, such as Dropbox or Google Drive.”

Bellingcat DatabaseToler says, “There are a number of unresolved questions from the rally, including the identities of some of the most violent individuals. With nearly everyone at the rally having a cell phone, there are likely hundreds of videos online showing the events of August 12. We have attempted to catalog these videos into a spreadsheet on Google Docs, providing a publicly accessible area for our readers to find and even contribute materials showing the events of August 12.” Librarians and academics have long known the importance of archiving information, and having this as a key goal for such a broad-based project is good news.

The New Fourth Estate?

Pacific Standard contributing writer David M. Perry sees Charlottesville as a turning point. “People who lift torches and chant racist slogans on a college campus, people who arm themselves with sticks or assault rifles and lurk outside synagogues, people intending to do or to advocate harm, have surrendered their right to anonymity. They have many legal rights of free expression, but they do not have the right to expect social impunity.”

Columbia University journalism professor Jelani Cobb believes that “at one point it was prudent to ignore those movements, because they were looking for counterprotests for attention. We are past that point now. What we saw this weekend was a debut. If you saw all these people marching together, and we know about the esprit de corps that comes with people marching together in a regimented fashion. They get high off that. They have drawn first blood and taken the life of one of their opponents. What would a movement like that do except look for something bigger now?”

Today, technology is giving everyone a platform—but it doesn’t give anyone a free ride. The actions of these citizen journalists and bloggers represent a new twist to activism and reporting, but technology also provides a new role for all citizens as part of the fourth estate—journalists—which provides the balance that our Founding Fathers built into the very fiber of our democracy with the First Amendment.

Yes, You're Racist Tweet

Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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