Often working with just their phones, community journalists can shine light on movements, expose police brutality, and help protect activists from getting “disappeared” by an authoritarian government. At the same time, the wrong tweet—or especially livestream—can leave people in the street exposed to increased police surveillance.
From “snatch and grab” arrests in unmarked vans, to raids on the homes of perceived organizers, activists have good reason to be concerned. From Portland, Oregon, to Philadelphia, law enforcement acknowledge using livestreams and other social media to gather evidence.
As activists begin to face serious charges from the most recent wave of protests, there’s also more attention on the risks posed by inexperienced or unethical community journalists. Meanwhile, more people are protesting for the first time, with some newly taking up the role of community journalist. As such, a debate that’s been bubbling beneath the surface since at least the Occupy movement and Arab Spring is bursting to the forefront: the question of whether, and how, protests should be documented in real time online.
Seasoned community journalists have established best practices that can support the dissemination of important information.
“I don’t want to do the state’s work for them,” says Ash J, a community journalist from New York. J’s been documenting protests on Twitter since 2014. That was the year after he got his master’s degree from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, and he was inspired by the resurgent movement for Black lives.
J recalled a day in November 2019 where a member of the NYPD’s legal team, which advises police about which protesters they can legally arrest, greeted him by his Twitter handle. It was a clear reminder that the police are watching what he posts.
Tensions are high in the United States. Donald Trump has suggested the election could be rigged and warned he might not accept the results. Irregularities in the election could cause people to flood the streets. Some experts even think we may be facing an incipient civil war. And uprisings continue over police killings. These conditions make it likely that new people will decide to use their phones to document events, and maybe even begin building a following for their grassroots coverage.
However, seasoned community journalists have established best practices that can support the dissemination of important information, while also reducing the risk of harm to people exercising their constitutional right to protest or protecting their communities from violence.
Be Open About Biases
Chuck Modi believes activists face a combination of unchecked police brutality and completely unfair use of the legal system against them. This helps orient his work as a community journalist. He’s been documenting protests, direct actions, and social justice movements in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere since he covered the aftermath of the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin.
“When you’re filming in an unethical world that is rigged for police to never be accountable and for protesters to have erroneous charges, then you have to adjust your ethics for that unethical world,” Modi says.
While it’s legal to publish photos of people taken in public, Modi, like the other experienced community journalists interviewed for this article, now takes additional steps to protect people from police retaliation after protests. From blurring or covering faces to simply choosing more carefully which footage to share before posting, these community journalists see the decisions they make as vital to protecting movements, and retaining the mutual respect they’ve cultivated with participants.
J’s tactics as a community journalist are sometimes at odds with what he learned in school. At CUNY, professors hammered home the official journalistic ethos of “neutrality,” but J says he’s always been skeptical of this concept. That skepticism has only grown stronger after years in the field.
“Here in New York, every news outlet is pro-police and pro-rich people,” he says. “They’re so blatantly biased but they try to pass themselves off as objective.”
Instead, J prefers that journalists of any kind be open about their biases, while maintaining a commitment to accurately representing what is happening on the streets.
Amplify, Don’t Surveil
Don’t make the mistake of thinking absolutely everything needs to be broadcast. Even professional journalists pick and choose what to publish. Broadcasting every interaction is more in line with a surveillance camera than a journalist.
“Your bad reporting, we have learned, can land people in jail,” says Modi. “You have to be cognizant of that, and certainly the protesters in D.C. are cognizant of that after a lot of police malfeasance.”
One area where community journalists have an opportunity to thrive is in elevating the voices of people who get heard less often, and capturing moments that are often ignored by mainstream media. Professional reporters and those working for major networks or agencies are often trained to focus on conflicts between protesters and police, frequently presenting those conflicts as a spontaneous “clash” between two opposing forces.
“That violence is often propagated or instigated by the police themselves,” alleges Modi, “and that does not get the same coverage.”
Modi asserts that while violence drives viewers to TV news and clicks to websites, community journalists can share the full range of what movements do, from feeding the homeless to hosting teach-ins. Modi spent several nights documenting Black Lives Matter supporters doing “midnight yoga” together. One of his favorite ways to get people to open up is to ask them why they came out to the event.
“The distance between the couch and the street is the real story,” he says.
Be Consistent and Recognizable
By consistently showing up night after night, Modi builds trust with the community on which he’s reporting. If someone hesitates to give him an interview, he invites them to check out his Twitter and think it over. There’s no pressure to speak.
Laura Jedeed, a community journalist working in Portland, Oregon, tries to wear a similar outfit that visually identifies her as news media every night she goes out. This makes her more recognizable to both protesters and police, though it doesn’t always prevent her from being targeted by police violence. She goes to great lengths to appear safe and approachable, she explained.
“If I’m walking through a crowd of protesters, I’ll have my phone flat so it’s very clear that if I was recording, it would either be the ground or the sky,” she says.
She asks permission to take photos of people, or even their signs or other possessions, then shows them the photo afterwards and gives them an opportunity to retake it. Because Portland protesters routinely mask up, this allows the subject the opportunity to ensure they aren’t accidentally revealing identifying marks like a tattoo.
In August 2020, as Jedeed followed protesters through a residential Portland neighborhood, a woman came out of her house wearing a swastika armband to confront activists. Jedeed felt the moment was newsworthy enough to post a short video, even though the nature of the event meant she couldn’t ask everyone for permission. In the clip she posted, only the woman in the Nazi armband is clearly identifiable.
Skip the Livestream
Every ethical community journalist encounters moments they’d like to post but can’t. When in doubt, a narrative description of an interaction could suffice in place of a video or livestream. If people damage property, showing the aftermath can be a way of accurately depicting what happened without helping police build a case against a particular person.
These kinds of judgment calls are much easier when it’s possible to choose what to post and what not to post, which is one major reason that livestreaming has fallen out of favor. None of the journalists interviewed for this story publish live video, explaining that it’s too easy to show people’s faces and other identifying information, and too easy to broadcast personal details that police or other bad actors might use against activists.
“I avoid livestreaming,” Modi says. “Even when you’re not trying to be reckless, it can become reckless.”
Many of Jedeed’s colleagues in Portland who used to livestream have now also switched over to publishing carefully edited photos and text on their social media feeds instead.
But unblurred faces and raw arrest footage aren’t the only things that can put protesters at risk. J is careful not to share private or insider information that could be used to undermine a movement or action. These include the on the fly tactical discussions, and even political arguments that can happen during a march.
“Those little conflicts within the grassroots movement in New York City, I try not to talk about that,” he explains. “That’s just stuff cops would love to know: ways to divide and conquer the movement.”
Document Police Brutality
No matter how hard they try, every journalist, of every stripe, will make mistakes and be unable to capture every important moment.
“Every night, the police are getting better at separating reporters from the brutality they do,” says Jedeed.
While many activists encourage filming the police and their actions, publishing raw arrest footage can put people at risk of extra charges. But having that evidence to share directly with the protester can be empowering.
“I get asked for footage of arrests a lot,” says Jedeed. “It can serve to make real moments where police will brutalize someone and then say they didn’t.”
This approach lets the arrested individual decide, under advice from their lawyer, what to post and when to post it. Sometimes they’re looking for evidence to use in a legal case against the police for their brutality, but more often they just want context to what happened to them.
“When it’s done right, journalism and documentation can make visible the invisible suffering of protesters,” says Jedeed.
Kit O’Connell is a movement journalist who began covering protest movements during Occupy Wall Street in 2011. He is the editor in chief of Ministry of Hemp, and his bylines have appeared in Truthout, The Texas Observer, and Firedoglake, among others. In summer 2020, he self-published “Beyond the Concrete Milkshake,” a short guide to nonviolent techniques that movement members can use to protect themselves from hostile or unethical reporters. He is based in Austin, Texas, and speaks English. He can be reached at kitoconnell.com