How the Black Lives Matter movement is changing local reporting

MinnPost photo by Brent Moore
Black Lives Matter protesters assembling prior to a Dec. 19 march in Minneapolis.

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.)

Nekima Levy-Pounds
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Nekima Levy-Pounds

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.”

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 02/02/2016 - 01:48 pm.

    Reporting or spin?

    Several in the national media picked up the shouting of the hate speech chanted by the BLM State Fair protesters. Many of the protesters shouted “pigs in a blanket -fry em like bacon (or something similar to that)

    However – this chant was not reported by the MinnPost “reporter” who covered the protest.

    When the “reporter” was reminded of this national news story – the pages of MinnPost remained silent.

    Yes – reporting has changed – or is it spin.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/02/2016 - 02:34 pm.

      Happy to see

      …Mr. Gotzman’s “antenna” working in regard to the “Pigs in a blanket” chant, which, while understandable, was not helpful. Too bad Mr. Gotzman’s antenna is apparently inoperable when looking in the other direction. To my knowledge, video of Jamar Clark’s shooting has still – months later – not been released. Even if the Minneapolis Police spent an hour examining each frame individually from a dozen different cameras, they’ve had enough time to reach conclusions by now. Continuing to keep the video a secret and/or failing to announce those conclusions strongly suggests to many who were not there that the police have something to hide.

      • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 02/02/2016 - 03:16 pm.

        “police have something to hide”

        The reasons not to release the video at this time are multiple and obvious to astute observers.

        But as proven in your statement – the spin will never stop

        • Submitted by Pat Berg on 02/02/2016 - 06:31 pm.

          How much longer?

          So how much longer would you suggest it is appropriate to wait before the video is released?

          • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 02/02/2016 - 08:36 pm.

            I agree with Dayton….

            “I will urge that the tapes be provided to the family and released to the public, as soon as doing so will not jeopardize the Department of Justice’s investigation,” Dayton said.

          • Submitted by Rod Kuehn on 02/03/2016 - 04:48 am.

            Keep the pressure on

            The trust level between BLM and the Mpls Police Dept is low. There is no reason not to keep the pressure on for the earliest possible release of the tapes. How else to ensure that they actually are released instead of conveniently “forgotten” when the public’s interest moves on?
            They have a legitimate grievance and a legitimate reason to ensure that it is fairly dealt with.
            BLM deserves accolades for keeping the protests – over a matter of life and death – peaceful.

          • Submitted by Scot Wilcoxon on 02/03/2016 - 10:00 am.

            Investigation is more important than public relations

            The investigation needs to collect the facts, and releasing the video can make that harder. If there are videos with something interesting, that can affect the investigation simply for checking what witnesses are saying. If a video shows he was holding an officer’s gun when he was shot, as police’s spokespeople have said, then witness statements which agree with that will be relevant. Even if that is not shown, a recorded detail such as his being on the ground face up or face down can be useful when compared against witness descriptions.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/02/2016 - 07:11 pm.

      Pot, Meet Kettle

      Surly you jest. You complain about spin? Seriously? Am I to believe that political or other establishment spin never gets reported as news? The entire American corporate media fell all over themselves in the propaganda campaign that led up to the Iraq invasion, a folly for which we will be paying for until the last veteran dies decades from now.

  2. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 02/03/2016 - 12:33 am.

    BLM’s Negative Spin

    Mrs. Levy-Pounds is under the impression that more media attention means positive change. In regards to Ferguson, Baltimore, and others, the additional media attention propagated the image of blacks being unruly, violent, and uneducated. Black Lives Matter has provided a different narrative than the white press, a more harmful narrative.

    Mrs. Levy-Pounds dismisses voices uncomfortable with her approach as ‘a few’ voices. The fact is, that BLM has few rational discussions with people who disagree with them, casting them as outliers or prejudiced. I hope they learn to have civil discussions with people who disagree with them.

    Recently, Mr. Bakk, the Senate Majority Leader, spoke quite eloquently on the subject of BLM when he stated, among other things, that BLM needs to identify a specific goal to keep their cause alive. Even now, their ‘rallies’ are a scattering of tens of people, a far cry from when they clogged the intersections near my house, lol.

  3. Submitted by John N. Finn on 02/03/2016 - 06:04 am.

    National media

    ” “Also, you know, the presence of the national media means an opportunity to present a different narrative,……” Levy-­Pounds

    The national media coverage that I heard, NPR mostly, of the protests presented it as being about another police killing of an unarmed black man without any mention of events prior to Clark’s fatal encounter with the police. I don’t recall if that national coverage included the disputed witness claims that he was handcuffed when shot.

  4. Submitted by Paul Landskroener on 02/03/2016 - 08:54 am.

    Who exactly witnessed the offensive chanting?

    Mr Gotzman writes: “Many of the protesters shouted “pigs in a blanket -fry em like bacon (or something similar to that)” and criticizes the MinnPost reporter for not reporting it.

    What makes you think the reporter witnessed the chant and then chose to not report it? How do you know it took place at all? I was there for the entire protest, and I did not hear that chant or anything like it. If it happend at all, it was by only a very few protesters and for a very short time, which is why the reporter likely didn’t mention it.

    In fact, such a chant would have been entirely out of character with the other chants and activities of the protest, which is why, if it happend at all, it was quickly suppressed by march organizers and reporting it would have been misleading to the public as to the true character of the event.

    My suspicion is that the police fed the offensive-chant story to white media who they knew would report it as fact, because if any reporter had personally witnessed the chant, she would have seen it was inconsistent with the tone and tenor of the rest of the march and would have been an irrelevant detail to report.

    The white-controlled media discussed in this article have been guilty throughout this process of reporting police-fed reports as truth — e.g., that 4th precict protesters sprayed pepper gas or threw Molitov cocktails over the fence at police — without ever confirming it with other eyewitnesses. The most outrageous example of this kind of uncritical reporting was the passing along of police union official Bob Kroll’s story of what he said the officers involved in Mr Clarks’ shooting told him happened. The effect of this uncritical reporting was to create an unanswered story-line in the public’s mind that will be nearly impossible to rebut later.

    MPR hasn’t been perfect, but it has at least engaged in genuine self-criticism and reflection in uncovering and correcting its bias. I’m sorry I can’t say the same about other local outletsr.

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