In an age of cellphone videos and instant Twitter feeds, do grassroots movements like #blacklivesmatter need the mainstream media anymore?
It’s a question that came up on several college campuses this past week as activists attempted to shut off live news media coverage of one grassroots protest and shout down those who questioned their tactics.
The confrontations came in a week during which activists demanded – and got – the resignations of the University of Missouri president and chancellor. Some say it was the refusal by the football team to take the field on Saturday unless both resigned that forced the issue – the forfeiture would have cost the university $1 million. But it was a rare success, nevertheless, and did not involve a death or violent confrontation.
Some activists hold that the largely white news media can’t be trusted to report truthfully on minority oppression because they don’t experience it themselves – either systemically or at the everyday level. Further, the media are conditioned to report conflict instead of incremental progress and the sometimes false equivalency that comes with getting both sides of the story. There’s even a concern over turning empathy for police brutality victims into newspaper sales without engaging the underlying problems.
Those are valid concerns that many in the news media have recognized. They may account for the frustration in the black human rights movement not only with the news media but also the lack of progress in exposing abuses in the criminal justice system. Ferguson was about not just a white officer killing a black teen but a city that financed its operations from courts fines that overwhelmingly targeted lower middle-class blacks.
Yes, it was the rise of the cellphone activist that exposed the brutality of the Ferguson police force and others in ways that could not be denied. Ideally, the mainstream earlier would have partnered earlier with these citizen journalists – press photographers simply can’t be everywhere. But armed with incontrovertible evidence, it was the mainstream press that, in the past year, has relentlessly pursued and exposed police departments and cities with more than just a few bad apples.
So why the backlash this past week? Some blame political correctness on campus – students and even some professors are arguing for a safe “intellectual” space free of perceived media bias. My theory is that #blacklivesmatter has simply gotten more sophisticated, even corporatized. They want to control their message to serve their cause, and that’s not necessarily the same goal as fair and balanced reporting.
By week’s end, both sides appeared to have declared a truce. Cellphone videos are powerful tools to hold the powerful accountable, but so is investigative journalism. There’s got to be a way to leverage both together.