As protests continue in dozens of American cities, what should the media do?

"We have to add in the necessary context about how we got here, why this has happened, why violence has erupted and how we can do something about it.”

June 1, 2020

This piece originally appeared in The Poynter Report, our daily newsletter for everyone who cares about the media. Subscribe to The Poynter Report here.

If you’ve turned on your TV over the past five days, you’ve seen protests from dozens of cities across the country. It can be hard to watch, but it’s critically important, too.

Covering these protests aren’t as simple as turning on a camera. The point of the protests, of course, is to give voice to those protesting — whether those voices are talking about the death of George Floyd, police brutality, racial inequality or other injustices. But there’s another aspect to the protests, and that includes confrontations, violence, fires and looting.

So I asked my Poynter colleague Al Tompkins — a journalist and teacher with more than 30 years experience —  what’s the media’s role in this? How should we be covering it?

“When we are at our best, journalists document and report truth,” Tompkins told me. “That means we report the grievances and demands of protesters, we report their peaceful demonstrations and we report the violent overreactions, too. We report the honest and professional response of police and political leaders and we report the overreaction and lawless cruelty when it happens, too.”

Tompkins told me he has seen remarkable examples of coverage showing peaceful marches, protesters stopping others from looting and productive conversations between citizens and police officers. But the scenes that often get the most attention are burning buildings and looting.

“I am waiting for the public cry, that always happens after a few days of civil disturbance, that will sound like, ‘If you would quit covering them they would quit protesting,’” Tompkins said. “And, of course, if we did not show violence or disobedience, there would be the rightful accusation that not covering looks an awful lot like endorsing such actions.”

On CNN’s “Reliable Sources” Sunday, Errin Haines, editor-at-large of The 19th*, said, “I think that is part of the risk. I certainly can understand that cameras are drawn to things like fires and destruction of property. Those are very dramatic images. But showing those images without centering the peaceful protesters, reminding people that that is the majority of the reason that protests are happening — that any incidents of rioting or looting are a distraction.”

Haines said that it’s important to return to the central questions, like why are black people getting killed by police?

Jane Coaston, senior politics reporter for Vox, told “Reliable Sources” that the media’s primary role is to explain how we got to this point.

“This isn’t a sport,” Coaston said. “This isn’t something that we can just observe and then comment on later. We have to add in the necessary context about how we got here, why this has happened, why violence has erupted and how we can do something about it.”

Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer. For the latest media news and analysis, delivered free to your inbox each and every weekday morning, sign up for his Poynter Report newsletter.