I’ll be honest, I used to scoff at the term “citizen journalism.” Why should any average Joe with a Twitter account be trusted with the same line of work for which I’m working on a bachelor’s degree?
But in recent years, with the introduction of GoPros, smartphones and accessible encryption techniques, a new kind of vigilante “journalist” (and I’ll get to why I used scare quotes in a second) has emerged. They’ve allowed us to watch live streams of worldwide Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, riots in Ukraine and most recently, the Ferguson protests after card-carrying journalists were reportedly purged out of police-occupied areas with tear gas. This is problematic in the growing blog culture of the new media landscape – people who don’t have the necessary training to handle themselves as members of the press make for even more misinformation coming out online, especially when they don’t properly contextualize situations such as the Ferguson riots.
— Antonio French (@AntonioFrench) August 12, 2014
The #mediablackout hashtag appeared on Twitter without any real contextualization; people were tweeting it in tandem with #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and similar hashtag campaigns but it wasn’t clear what exactly the #mediablackout entailed until the arrests of Al-Jazeera, Huffington Post and Washington Post journalists surfaced.
— Danya Fernanda✨ (@bestof28) August 14, 2014
Outrage isn’t a substitute for information. Sure, the public is taking notice on restrictions of journalism but a few attention-grabbing tweets aren’t going to reverse a media blackout. We need people on the ground like the affected journalists to get publicly angry, and even Obama took their side, albeit after some presidential jargon condemning violence against police:
There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights. And here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.
All that aside, whether or not you believe that the Disney Channel purposely aired throwback episodes of old shows to distract youths from the news, I don’t need to tell you that press freedom is a myth in America. What’s most concerning about Ferguson isn’t citizen journalism, it’s, as Sandy Davidson, a professor of communications law at the Missouri School of Journalism weighed in:
… every piece of information Ferguson officials have tried to keep from leaking has come back to bite them. Despite vocal outcries from community leaders, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson has refused to release the name of the officer involved in Brown’s shooting, citing death threats against the officer. It’s a valid concern, and one Davidson said is supported by legal precedent. She cites a 1982 appellate case in her home state of Missouri, which held that public information can be withheld if releasing it would cause a “foreseeable risk of harm.” The Supreme Court let the decision stand in 1983.
But legal or not, withholding information has consequences, including a risk that those withholding the information will be perceived as having something to hide. “You can’t trust what you don’t know,” Davidson said. “Anytime a veil of secrecy is thrown on something, I think it leads to speculation, which can get more and more odious.”
As long as transparency isn’t the norm, information is going to suffer. This should be a no-brainer, but this makes it all the more important that we fight for press freedom and attempt to instruct people on how to conduct citizen journalism properly.