Today’s celebration of the 220th birthday of the Bill of Rights comes after three months of journalist arrests and press suppression in cities across America — the most recent of which happened just this week. When the NYPD arrested a group of photographers, live video-streamers and other citizen journalists at an Occupy Wall Street protest in New York City earlier this week, it rekindled a long smoldering debate over who is a journalist.
The people arrested were all aligned with the Occupy movement, with some serving on the Occupy Wall Street media team, but based on videos and first-hand accounts they were primarily there to bear witness and cover the events. In fact, over the course of the Occupy movement, in many cases when police kept other journalists at arm’s length, the only video and reports coming out of Occupy raids were coming from these kinds of citizen journalists.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
The question “who is a journalist” has been raised often over the past two months as reports of press suppression and journalist arrests have spread from city to city. See, for example, the debates here, here and here. I’ve already described my views on this in relation to my own work monitoring journalist arrests at Occupy events: “I decided early on that I wasn’t going to quibble about who is a journalist, and who isn’t. My goal was to account for anyone who was clearly committing acts of journalism when they were arrested.”
But, tangled up in the debates over who is a journalist are very real legal debates about who is given press credentials and what protections those press credentials provide. In general, the press credentialing system is broken — a poor fit for the media landscape we find ourselves in. The courts have already ruled that, as more people gain access to the tools of reporting, “news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status.” If the question is not who is a journalist, but rather, what are the acts of journalism that should be protected, then we need to rethink what a “press credential” actually is.
I think your actions should be your press credentials. In his 2010 book Mediactive Dan Gillmor outlines five key principles of “trustworthy media creation” including: Thoroughness, Accuracy, Fairness, Independence, and Transparency. “These are universal principles,” Gillmor writes, “not just for people who call themselves journalists but for anyone who wants to be trusted for what they say or write.” As I have studied the more than 30 cases of journalist arrests at Occupy protests, while the majority of people on my list have had some affiliation with a news organization, I have used these principles as a guide to help identify acts of journalism.
I recognize that this is not as simple as it sounds, and that the lines are blurry, but that complexity doesn’t make it wrong. This isn’t an argument that everyone is a journalist or that all reporting is of equal quality or value. This also isn’t an argument that journalists are somehow “above the law” or that anyone with a camera should be untouchable. We only need look at the News of the World scandal in the UK to know that a journalist’s notebook is not a get out of jail free card. The point is, this debate should not hinge on what you call yourself, it should focus on what you do.
Blurring the Lines
To that end, I thought it was fascinating that when TIME Magazine announced that its Person of the Year was “protesters,” it included a number of journalists in its pictures and profiles. This is a prime example of the blurring boundaries between journalists and activists and a recognition that in a networked news environment we are all getting our information from an array of sources.
“Once upon a time, when major news events were chronicled strictly by professionals and printed on paper or transmitted through the air by the few for the masses, protesters were prime makers of history,” writes Kurt Andersen in TIME. After many decades when it seemed like protests had little real impact on the world, Anderson argues, “starting exactly a year ago, it became the defining trope of our times. And the protester once again became a maker of history.” However, instead of this history being made by protesters and communicated by professionals, it is being chronicled live across the web by a diverse array of media makers.
In a long video on its site, TIME profiles one of the most famous live-streamers of the Occupy movement, Tim Pool, who it dubs “an activist/journalist.” Pool doesn’t have a press pass, but he speaks thoughtfully about the values and principles that drive his work – and his actions bear out those ideas. Jay Rosen, of NYU and PressThink, also discussed Pool in a long post that touches these issues:
This might be a good time to mention that Tim Pool is clearly an activist and supporter of Occupy Wall Street as well as a reporter of it. If you believe those things can’t possibly go together, fine, I know where you’re coming from. But don’t expect me to freak out or even care that you wouldn’t call Pool a journalist. As I’ve said before, we should focus less on “who’s a journalist” and more on valid acts of journalism. When we can recognize the act, the ‘who’ becomes easier: anyone committing the act!
If credentials are meant to establish one’s qualifications, I would argue that Pool’s actions are his press credentials. Actions, after all, often speak louder than words. The fact that the NYPD continues to block and arrest journalists, even after a formal order from the police commissioner not to interfere with the press, is a stark reminder of this.
Action, Intention, and Impact
We can debate what these acts of journalism look like, but over at The Atlantic Rebecca Rosen suggests that a better question might be what focus on what acts of journalism actually produce. “Does this information aid us as citizens? Does it help us understand government, or help to right some wrong?” she writes. “It’s the quality and content of the information that matters to press freedom, not the people spreading it.” She continues:
The ‘who’ proxy will work nine times out of 10, but for the sake of that tenth time, we should try to ask the more central question of ‘what’ the information is that’s at stake…. Journalists who work for big institutions will continue to have better protections — not because of laws that protect them but because of the legal power their companies can buy. For everyone else, we should hope that we haven’t legislated non-journalists out of the protections the First Amendment seeks.
As for the citizen journalists who were arrested earlier this week while documenting the protests in New York: They were released last night after more than 30 hours behind bars and face a variety of charges from criminal trespassing to resisting arrest. Hours later many of them were back in the streets reporting again and thousands of people were tuning in.