If you’ve followed the scores of Black Lives Matter protests that have filled St. Louis-area streets for nearly two months, you’ve likely seen their work in your social media feeds.
Citizen journalists have livestreamed or live-tweeted nearly every demonstration following the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville this spring. Most have no formal journalism training and no newsroom team or subscriber base supporting them. But many people in the region’s Black community consider them credible news sources.
Citizen journalism is not a new phenomenon. It gained momentum locally when protests erupted in 2014, after a Ferguson police officer killed Michael Brown. More than 200 citizen journalists were actively reporting in Ferguson that year, a University of Missouri researcher found. Real STL News, the most prominent citizen journalism outlet in the St. Louis area today, was born out of the Ferguson uprising.
A collective of Black activists and livestreamers frustrated with mainstream media’s violent depiction of protests decided its members could tell more accurate stories about their communities.
Their first stream went live in summer 2017 at the site of a north St. Louis County shooting. Three years later, some Real STL News livestreams amassed over 40,000 views on Facebook.
As their audience has grown, the content has evolved. Beyond livestreaming protests, Real STL News covers food drives, crime scenes and in recent weeks has endorsed political candidates, including Tishaura Jones for St. Louis treasurer.
The volunteer-run platform with no full-time employees is also breaking news, scooping established news organizations with multimillion-dollar budgets on major story developments.
Last month, Real STL News was the first to broadcast a home security video of a Florissant police officer veering to hit a Black man with his unmarked SUV. The homeowner sent the video to Real STL News, not to traditional news outlets.
Soon after, local media followed their reporting, and some credited Real STL News for breaking the story. Real STL News co-founder Amir Brandy, who manages a law firm by day, is not surprised that mainstream media is paying attention to his outlet.
“We can go into the trenches and [mainstream media] can’t, we can get the information where they can't,” he said. “We can actually get information even when the police can’t get it.”
Most of his volunteer reporters are embedded in the community and have earned activists’ trust. Brandy said sometimes community members call him before dialing 911, and he shows up to crime scenes before the police tape is up.
Since the platform’s launch, professional journalists have tracked Real STL News livestreams for tips and updates on the latest demonstrations.
A Real STL News livestream is not like a regular, scripted news report. Viewers can comment in the stream’s chat and interact with the reporter, who often gives commentary about what’s unfolding on screen and sometimes will react in shock, fear or anger. While covering a Florissant protest at the police station in early July, Brandy ran from officers shooting rubber bullets into the crowd.
"These rubber bullets hurt,” he said on the stream. “I'm not trying to get in no trouble tonight."
‘People like me’
Unlike outlets with scheduled newscasts, livestreamers broadcast news as it’s happening, whenever that is. Citizen journalists say they like how livestreaming is immediate and unfiltered, so people can form their own opinions while they watch an event unfold in real time.
They rarely have editors. And few have advertisers or donors who might try to influence coverage. Tony Rice, a Black citizen journalist and activist who goes by the Twitter handle @search4swag, said that lack of editorial oversight is a big reason why people follow him.
“[My followers] do not trust mainstream media. They think they have a certain bent or angle,” he said. “And they rely on people like me. … For the most part, I have no one to account for.”
Mainstream media historically has reflected the interests of white institutions, sometimes misrepresenting or ignoring issues in minority communities altogether, said Cristina Mislán, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. That has led people in those communities to mistrust traditional media, she said.
Mislán has researched how activists use journalistic methods to cover protests. Social media has empowered people to broadcast their own stories, she said.
“I'm telling this story, and I'm telling you what happens, versus someone always telling the story for them and often getting it wrong.”
Mislán said citizen journalists can give journalists who work in traditional media a more robust understanding of the very issues — such as police brutalizing Black people — that people are protesting in the first place.
Citizen journalists can provide an insider’s perspective, in contrast to reporters from mainstream media outlets who are seldom embedded with the protesters.
Trust and treatment
A KMOV reporter, Caroline Hecker, recently reported that protesters outside St. Louis City Hall “resorted to violence” and threatened her after refusing her interview requests. Hecker, who is white, tweeted several times that a protest calling for St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson to resign was "incredibly hostile." She described protesters “screaming at police” and reported “no shortage of bad language being used.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Taylor Harris, who is Black and reported on the Occupy City Hall protests, took to Twitter to call Hecker out. She said that protesters were largely nonviolent and that Hecker’s report was exaggerated.
“Many, particularly minorities & specifically Black people are hesitant to speak with press. Those concerns are legitimate as their words & views historically & to this day are not always portrayed accurately. Don’t villainize a group because they choose not to interview with you,” Harris tweeted.
I’ve sat & stood next to protestors at City Hall almost everyday this past week for hours trying to understand their views & specifically what they want & wouldn’t describe them as hostile. They’ve continuously said they don’t want to be peaceful but, aim to be non violent. https://t.co/xNRLAb48g0— Taylor Harris (@ladytiamoyo) July 12, 2020
Newsrooms have long been predominantly white spaces, nationally and locally. That's particularly true among editors and newsroom leaders. That can influence coverage of minority communities. And in the midst of a nationwide racial crisis, there is also a reckoning in newsrooms, where staffers are calling for more diversity among their ranks.
People in the Black community notice when local news — especially TV news — fails to connect with their perspectives, said Chris Phillips, a Black filmmaker.
“The way they're either reporting it, or the reporters themselves, you can tell that they don't have a certain sensitivity to that community, or they can't identify with it and it comes out in the work,” he said.
That compels Phillips to broadcast the full truth as he sees it in his community. That sometimes can look more like advocacy than objective journalism, even as he covers standard news events next to traditional reporters. He livestreams press conferences, St. Louis County Council meetings and protests.
“I show the good, the bad and the ugly, but I'm telling it in such a way where it's fairly honest, but then I'm also contextualizing it,” Phillips said. “So Black people aren't being depicted as a bunch of jobless quote-unquote, Donald Trump, thugs.”
Phillips added that while some people may stream for the views and attention, most citizen journalists are just interested in getting the story out.
And people are eager to watch.
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