As the clash between protestors and local police rages on in Ferguson, Missouri our national media is finally waking the fuck up and starting to provide some real coverage of the events.
Over the past few days, I have been glued to Twitter because, until recently, that was the only place to get any substantial coverage of the protests. Most of the major news outlets were either not reporting on the story at all, or were continuing to push a racist narrative, painting both the victim, Mike Brown, and those protesting on his behalf as the sole perpetrators of the violence. There have, of course, been some exceptions like the ever on-point Al Jazeera, but for the most part, the media was been failing spectacularly.
Last night, rapper and actor Childish Gambino, tweeted this:
The discussion about the real world usefulness of so-called hashtag or Twitter activism has been going on for some time. In many ways, it has become social media versus traditional media. Both sides of the argument have valid points, but it is clearer than ever that they should not be fighting against each other. The situation in Ferguson has revealed the necessary symbiotic relationship between social media and traditional media.
When we argue about the validity of hashtag activism, we are largely talking about the use of Twitter to a bring attention to a particular cause or event. Social media activism is used to highlight facts and arguments that may be concealed and to spread first person accounts in real time—often creating a viral wave. Along with Twitter, Vine and Instagram compliment hashtag activism with photos and videos of events where traditional news crews and photojournalists are likely not present.
I remember sitting on Twitter Tuesday night watching what was happening in Ferguson and being in utter shock. I tweeted and retweeted reports and outrage, but my words only went so far. They were of course reverberated across my followers and their followers and so on, but much of that news and indignation stays within the bubble of Twitter. We all cared. We all knew what was happening, but the rest of the world didn't.
Because it is 2014, it is damn near impossible to be a breaking news reporter and not utilize Twitter. The tweets and photos from those on the ground in Ferguson allowed journalists from outside the area to see what was happening and they raced down to the scene. I would argue that this sudden presence of major national journalists was the tipping point in the coverage of the protests in Ferguson. The police clearly had an "oh shit" moment when they realized that the entire world would now be watching them trample on the rights of the people they should be serving and protecting. They flailed and only made things worse by ordering press to leave the area.
Throughout all of this, one of the most important voices on social media has been that of St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, who has been tweeting and posting videos right from ground zero. The work that French has been doing is amazing and heroic and necessary. But he is not a reporter from the Washington Post or the New York Times. He is not an Al Jazeera crew being forced to abandon their expensive camera equipment as they flee from a cloud of tear gas.
Traditional media needs social media to help them become aware of issues that need to be covered and traditional media then has, I believe, an obligation to legitimize those reports and bring them to a larger stage. In this case, say "legitimize" for two reasons. One, because, remember, most of the people giving their accounts on the ground from Ferguson are black and the words of, and accounts from, black people aren't holding much weight these days.
And two, because journalists are presumably held to higher standards than others when it comes to reporting. This is their job and there are serious repercussions to them doing it poorly. I don't necessarily believe that's the way it should be, but this is where we are right now.
So when Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, who happens to be black, is essentially denied his First Amendment to freedom of the press AND captures the offense on video, the rest of media is forced to listen. This is now an attack on them as well.
In a statement today about Ferguson, President Obama's harshest words were in defense of the right of journalists to be able to report what they see. "Here in the United States police should not be arresting journalists who are trying to do their jobs," he said.
I hope tonight, as the protests will likely continue, we have enough news crews and photographers and reporters on the ground reporting the facts to the nation. Because with this presence, no one will be able to seriously argue that the police are simply doing their jobs. They will not be able to argue that the protestors are the ones inciting the violence. At a certain point, the red herring that is the narrative of the rampant looting and property destruction will die out and the facts will take center stage.
Social media and traditional media not only need each other, they strengthen each other. Nothing has proved that better than the protests in Ferguson. Together, they can make enough noise so that all the citizens of this country will be forced to listen. And once they've heard, I hope that concern will follow, because we should all be worried. The threat against our Constitutional rights—the rights on which our nation's laws and values stand is something every taxpaying American has a vested interest in. Because what's happening in Ferguson right now—what's happening in America right now— this is not what democracy looks like.
Images via Getty.