March 29, 2016

Police shootings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Walter Scott, the battle for marriage equality and the ongoing political fight over immigration have prompted exhaustive, searching stories about minority groups in America during the last two years.

But those stories, which often require journalists to dig deep and push back against conventional wisdom, take time and resources from media companies — many of which are increasingly strapped for cash. Can they persist in a shaky business environment? And how does the rise of social media change the game for news organizations that once bore a much bigger share of responsibility for being eyewitnesses to injustice?

As part of Poynter’s ongoing series on social justice journalism leading up to the centennial edition of the Pulitzer Prizes, we asked NPR TV critic Eric Deggans, the author of “Race-Baiter,” about its trajectory in today’s swiftly changing media landscape.

As the financial pressures on news organizations continue to mount, resources for this kind of high-impact reporting are dwindling. Do you see a way forward for this kind of journalism? Are you fundamentally optimistic or pessimistic when you look at the future of news?

I think the future of news is still bright. Thanks to new technology and new voices, the amount of journalism available to the average consumer is astounding, and much of it is quite good. I do, however, fear for journalists. The same technology which makes our jobs more fun, far reaching and impactful than ever also drives down wages and makes it harder for skilled reporters to earn a middle-class living.

I think there will always be media outlets serving up high-profile projects that have lasting impact. And the ubiquity of smartphones and video technology is increasingly turning the coverage of breaking news from a craft to an act — something anyone on the scene with an impulse to post to YouTube or Periscope can participate in. But I worry that day-to-day journalism will suffer, and those who work hard to raise the quality of daily news reports will have a difficult time earning fair compensation for their efforts.

The latter stages of 2014 and the entirety of 2015 saw more aggressive coverage of the often fraught relationship between the police and minorities, especially Black men. The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray earned this story national attention, but coverage was also spurred by social media and the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

In your opinion, to what degree was recent reporting on police violence against minorities driven by social media? Do you think the Civil Rights Movement would have been covered more quickly or effectively if social media existed in the 1950s and 1960s?

I think the last two years in particular have seen a huge shift in coverage of policing, criminal justice issues and race largely fueled by social media. It’s not just that #BlackLivesMatter so sharply summed up the problems with unequal policing in America; it’s that the rapid spread and visibility of videos documenting the worst excesses were spread across the globe by journalists and activists alike.

Videos of Black people like Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and Laquan McDonald killed by police officers in suspicious circumstances gave the public the ability to judge for themselves whether justice had been served. And once they made a decision, there were avenues available through social media where they could tell their own stories and get involved in a more direct way, if they chose.

What social media has accomplished more than anything else, is to place the concept of institutional racism in policing and criminal justice on the table in a serious way in news coverage. Statistics and people of color had been telling this story for many years. But when video shows a police officer seeming to plant a taser on a Black man he just shot dead, journalists and the public have visceral proof of a problem that too many have downplayed for too long.

The Civil Rights Movement took place during an era of homogeneity among media organizations. There were fewer TV channels and a smaller pool of national news outlets, and many of the most influential organizations played it straight down the middle, ideologically speaking.

Now, there’s a profusion of media outlets, both general interest and niche, all across the United States. Do you think that’s changed coverage of modern social justice issues? Why or why not?

The obvious answer here is that news events are now presented by many more news outlets with ideological filters. So you can see the story of a Black man sucker punched by a fan at a Donald Trump rally reported by both Salon (liberal) and The Daily Caller (conservative), as well as news outlets with less obvious biases. But it also means that events which land in the news are examined exhaustively by many different outlets with different areas of concern. So the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore might be covered by the criminal justice-focused outlet The Marshall Project in one way and by the fact-checking outlet PolitiFact in another.

It also means that allegations of racial profiling or civil rights abuses will likely be publicized and challenged in the same media moment. In 2014, Muslim YouTube stars Adam Saleh and Sheikh Akbar posted a video in which they were arguing with a police officer, claiming they were confronted while wearing traditional garb on the streets of New York. Later, after prominent coverage by outlets like The Huffington Post and lots of retweets, they admitted the scene was staged. For better or worse, this leads to a media environment where consumers might assume that an allegation or scandal which isn’t debunked amid social media furor has more validity.

But consumers can easily see only one version of a story – perhaps the initial allegation — and miss the corrective follow-ups. More than anything, the proliferation of outlets has provided quality sources for regular coverage of civil rights issues — from NPR’s Code Switch blog to Univision’s Fusion, HuffPost’s Black Voices, The Root website, ESPN’s The Undefeated platform and more. These outlets provide coverage which can bubble up into more established news outlets, keeping up the pressure for national news organizations to stay on these stories.

With the rise of eyewitness video and audio, it’s easier than ever for people everywhere to bear witness to the kind of indignities and violence that social justice journalism can expose. How does citizen journalism alter the role that professional journalists play? Are there functions can only be carried out by professional news organizations?

Citizen journalists almost always challenge professionals to step up their game. At a time when anyone and everyone carries a video camera and publishing tool in their hip pocket via a smartphone, professional journalists must do more than just show up at a location where news has occurred and relate what is happening. Professionals must communicate better and clearer, provide accurate, well-vetted information and present angles to the story that the average citizen couldn’t guess or reproduce. It requires professionals to be sharper at every element of the process, reporting better, reacting faster, knowing the subject deeper and providing more compelling material than an amateur can provide.

It also means professionals must learn to respect quality citizen journalism; as we see with issues involving policing, criminal justice, equal housing and gender equality, often citizen journalists were the first to sound alarms. So the question arises: When the next citizen journalist reveals rampant drug deaths in poor communities of color, overpolicing of communities to reap revenue from fines or the payment of overly high rent amounts to slumlords who house homeless citizens through a municipal program, will the professional pay attention?

Ultimately, journalism remains a field anyone can enter, and they might do so by recording a news event on their phone while waiting for a bus or by showing up at every school board meeting and posting dispatches on their Facebook page. It’s up to professionals to build on the leads provided by good citizen journalists, providing a level of quality and expertise that those working on their own dime might not possess.

Although racial diversity in American newsrooms has improved since the Civil Rights Movement, journalists in the United States still don’t look like the communities they cover, by and large. What affect does this have on coverage of social justice issues, if any?

News stories depend on a common set of values for their impact. If you believe the open use of racial epithets in public is shocking, for instance, then a news story about a city council member using the n-word during a public meeting would seem highly newsworthy. So when a newsroom lacks diversity — not just in terms of race, but in terms of age, gender, socioeconomic background and political orientation – then the values they use to determine what is and isn’t news can often be very different than the values held by their community.

Lack of diversity in newsrooms may also mean news outlets will come to be seen as representing only certain interests in a community and not others. Already, newspapers and local TV stations’ focus on middle age, often white consumers can make their news reports look divorced from reality — with resources devoted to concerns like school board mileage rates, while daily concerns about policing, education or infrastructure in poorer and/or Blacker neighborhoods is given less attention.

Worst of all, as America’s population grows more diverse, newsrooms lacking in diversity look increasingly old fashioned; a relic of days gone by rather than a trusted source for news on what’s coming. And in a world where media increasingly pushes into every area of life, the image of something has a disconcerting tendency to become its reality before long.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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