Encouraging grassroots journalism as a defense against news blackouts

If the police arrest reporters who show up to cover the news, then let’s help all the other people whom the police can’t arrest become the reporters.

“Citizen journalism” – the reporting of news events by non-professional reporters – isn’t just a nifty little gadget that we pros can append to our reporting, to make it seem more “social” or interactive online. When circumstances and agencies stand in the way of news reporting, grassroots reporting (my preferred term) becomes an indispensable part of the news-gathering process.

We’ve seen that over the past weeks with the Occupy movement, and especially last night in New York, when city police launched a middle-of-the-night raid on peaceful protesters camped out in a private park in lower Manhattan – then blocked and even arrested news reporters who showed up to cover it.

By now, we should be used to relying on readers and viewers to provide coverage for us in times of natural disasters. Sure, we can drive the trucks to the point where a hurricane is forecast to make landfall, but forecasts aren’t always spot-on. And we get little warning for tornadoes, and none for earthquakes. (Twitter notwithstanding.) Professional journalists have relied upon eyewitness descriptions, photos and videos from people on the scene of calamities, since long before the Internet.

But if that’s all we’re using user-generated content for in our news reports, we’re leaving ourselves too vulnerable to authorities who wish to control our coverage. Organizers and supporters of the Occupy movement have recognized the importance of putting cameras in the hands of participants, to minimize the chance that a newsworthy moment happens without being recorded for the public at large.

That ought to become more journalists’ role, too – not just specifically for Occupy protests, but for all continuing coverage of daily life in our communities. I hope that reporters across the country take into their news meetings a copy of that NY Times blog post I linked earlier in this piece, and say to their colleagues, “we need to find ways to prevent this from happening in our community.”

This isn’t just about just riding your local officials so your community’s voters won’t elect the type of official who orders a press blackout of the news. Good luck with that. It’s about making a press blackout a pointless endeavor, by inspiring, training and enabling as many people in your community to become witnesses for the news, 24/7.

Afraid of cultivating your competition? Don’t be. If you can’t deliver the news, you’ve got no chance of surviving, much less making money, in the information marketplace. We need grassroots reporting.

And don’t forget why you got into this business. Surely it wasn’t for the great pay, the job security or the cushy hours. If you’re like most journalists, you got into this business to raise hell and right some wrongs. There’s nothing wrong with recruiting every ally you can to help.

The First Amendment never belonged to a single industry or its employees anyway. It belongs to everyone. The freedom of the press is a public right (along with the freedom of speech and to peaceably assemble). So let’s encourage our fellow citizens to use their freedom of the press, even when authorities try to say professional journalists can’t.

Especially when authorities try to say we can’t.

What was once a “you can’t yell ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater” exception to First Amendment protections has mutated into “you can protest only in approved zones during approved hours of the day using approved personal belongings and stances.” Don’t link arms. Don’t lie down. Don’t stay overnight.

Rights are like muscles. Use ’em or lose ’em. The more citizens we bring into the process of reporting the news, the stronger our freedom of the press will become.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. says:

    I love the “Don’t Link Arms” – because it can be interpreted as an act of aggression. Tell that to this guy.