Stepping back for a moment, one of the noteworthy facets of the protests over the police shooting of Jamar Clark this past November was how protest organizers followed a relatively new and effective template for quickly building crowds and media attention.
The marrying of traditional civil rights protest tactics (draw crowds, disrupt routine activity) with the savvy use of social media and direct confrontation with traditional news sources helped organizers control their message in a remarkably effective manner. At the same time, the immediacy and volume of alternative media messaging also presented local newsrooms with new challenges in fully and fairly reporting racially charged incidents.
One obvious revolution is the continuing growth in the use of Twitter and Facebook (and, to a lesser extent, other venues) in speaking immediately and directly to core audiences, people primed by established relationships to respond with their physical presence at a moment’s notice — and to serve as instantaneous amplifiers for reaching those who aren’t yet among the organizers’ “followers.” The days of formal press releases sent to conventional news outlets begging for attention has become another vestige of a fastdisappearing era, as is a movement’s dependence on traditional media to report on the most critical elements of any protest.
Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis NAACP and a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, has been active in the local Black Lives Matter movement since its inception, and was one of the most prominent spokespeople during the Clark protests. At 39, Levy Pounds has feet in both old and new schools of protest tactics and rhetoric.
She says circumventing traditional media, especially local media, is now essential to insuring that the full breadth and depth of the issues motivating a protest are heard, or at least widely available.
One key is drawing in national media as a way to apply competitive pressure on local reporters to improve their game, a tactic made easier in the Clark protests by the intense interest and coverage of the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Missouri, Freddie Gray in Baltimore and others.
“It’s usually a challenge if you’re relying only on local media to cover major stories of racial injustice,” she said. “And the reason is because most of the reporters are white, and their managers are white, and the audiences they’re reporting for are mostly white. Therefore, they may think they’re being fair, but their reporting reinforces a very mainstream view of protests, for example emphasizing disruption as much if not more than the issues, like chronic police misconduct, something white audiences have almost no personal experience with.”
“Also, you know, the presence of the national media means an opportunity to present a different narrative, because they are talking to a more diverse audience.
“Face it, the media culture here likes to project the narrative that Minnesota such a nice place and everyone here is nice. Even if a reporter has experience with the issues we are talking about, like Reg Chapman [at WCCO-TV], who lives near the Fourth Precinct, it takes a lot of convincing for the people he works for to accurately report our issues, because they don’t fit the ‘nice’ narrative.” (Chapman and WCCO-TV’s news director did not respond to requests to discuss their coverage of the Jamar Clark protests.)
Within hours of the Clark shooting, Levy-Pounds says she turned to her social media contacts at various national news organizations, alerting them of the killing and plans for protests and demands for investigations — in otherwise nice, progressive Minnesota — similar to those in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere. The media loves trends, and a protest in Minneapolis bearing all the hallmarks of previous protests has irresistible appeal to news editors.
At MPR, News Director Mike Edgerly can’t quarrel with Levy-Pounds’ social media focus. “It was very savvy on their part, I thought,” he said. “And that includes the live-streaming that Unicorn Riot did. That was impressive. And their use of Twitter, which is everywhere now, was also fascinating. We’ve gotten used to monitoring Twitter and other platforms, but the way Black Lives Matter used it, during the days of the Fourth Precinct demonstration was very savvy.
“And their insights and complaints about how journalism organizations in this community operate — led by white people — they were absolutely legitimate and they presented a pretty effective challenge to us, which I think is valuable to good reporting.”
Edgerly, who says he deployed 10 reporters at different points in the Clark protests, isn’t quite as accommodating when Levy-Pounds lumps MPR in with other local newsrooms. (She remains displeased with MPR approaching her for a story about Black Lives Matter’s appeal to the larger black community. “MPR did a pretty good job, overall,” she says. “But I refused to participate when they called about that. They found a couple voices uncomfortable with our approach. So what? What’s the relevance of that compared to what we were talking about?”)
MPR reporter Matt Sepic echoes Edgerly in his appreciation of BLM’s media strategy: “Ten or 15 years ago, a group like Black Lives Matter would have sent over a fax and hoped the media showed up,” he said. “This group doesn’t need any of that.”
“Challenging” the media to “get it right” was a persistent message from organizers via social media to protesters, and with those regular reminders, assembled crowds regularly brought the challenge to the cameras and microphones.
Sepic says he personally had no problems covering the protests and interacting with protesters. Although there was, to be sure, plenty of “challenging” of the media happening. “Everyone was really adamant about controlling their message,” he said. “And there was a lot of reluctance to talk with the so-called mainstream media, although I felt like TV reporters were feeling that more than we were.” (Protesters pointedly refused to cooperate with KSTP-TV crews, an ongoing response to the station’s infamous “Pointergate” episode.)
The sheer volume of social media presented another problem for newsrooms. “It really adds to the challenge of covering something like this,” says Sepic. “Suddenly there are all these voices on Twitter and you have to decide, fairly quickly, who is and who is not credible. It may be a new world with a lot of new potential sources. But the old rules of journalism still apply. You have to fear hoaxes, and be very careful.”
Over at the Pioneer Press, editor Mike Burbach was a bit daunted by the breadth of information that exploded on social media during the Clark protests, all requiring some kind of vetting by his staff. At the same time, he remains fascinated by the fundamental shifts in the messaging-for-media game.
“You watch something like this play out and you have to accept — if you haven’t before — that literally everyone with a phone is now a publisher and a reporter of some kind,” he said.
He recalls being able to watch developments on Twitter essentially in real time, surges of drama and passion as events unfolded across town, a pulse-beat-by-pulse-beat narrative available to everyone, but to which — to some extent — his paper’s coverage would be measured. “What it adds up to, I think, is more influence for anyone who best uses all the technology at hand.”
“Like everything else that has to do with freedom,” said Burbach, “it comes with both good and ill. But I like to think more voices is overall a good thing, and this was an example of an explosion of freedom. I’m not sure it makes our job any easier. But it is interesting.”