A young man notices a scuffle nearby and decides to check it out. He sees a black man on the ground and a white North Charleston police officer standing over him.
Out comes the smartphone and he hits record. Moments later, the black suspect is running away and the cop is firing eight times — Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! — toward the fleeing man, striking him four times in the back and once in the ear.
The video is delivered to the victim’s family, which released it to The Post and Courier and national media. What happens next will shake a police force and a community to its core; it will contradict official explanations and it will spur international scrutiny, all within hours.
He might not have thought about it in the moments he was recording these images of Walter Scott’s death, but videographer Feidin Santana is part of a vast, ad hoc army of citizen journalists who have changed the way the media operate and the public consumes and understands news.
Recording newsworthy images on video or in photographs is nothing new, and neither is the power of those images to impact history. Think of Abraham Zapruder, who filmed the Kennedy assassination with a home movie camera. What’s new is the pervasiveness of portable technology, the near-inevitability with which many public events are recorded and shared, the growing reliance on citizen journalists by established media outlets and the light-speed delivery of these digital images to viewers around the world. This, perhaps more than anything, has influenced how we get our news and how we react to it.
“It’s not as though we didn’t have this before (the ability to quickly record video), but it certainly wasn’t ubiquitous,” said Charles Bierbauer, dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina and a former CNN correspondent. “It didn’t reside in everyone’s pocket. ... And the capacity to document events as they unfold did not exist in the same way.”
The advantages are obvious, according to Bierbauer and other media experts. But this reliance on technology also raises concerns.
It can enable less rigorous news outlets, commentators and other observers to distort events and the work of professional journalists. And sometimes it can provide only partial answers to important questions — like, “What happened?” — leading some to jump to conclusions. What’s more, technological advances have contributed directly to the explosion in the past two decades of news websites and blogs, many of which are amateur operations or simple platforms for anyone with an opinion.
The Walter Scott shooting in North Charleston on April 4 went viral once The Post and Courier and other media posted Santana’s video on Tuesday. Suddenly, viewers understood that the incident was much more than a traffic stop gone awry. It was a tragic killing reminiscent of other confrontations across the country between police officers and black men, and it injected additional urgency into the national debate about race relations and the way law enforcement agencies operate.
The video of Scott and North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager is important in that it provides hard-to-refute evidence that contradicts the official explanation previously offered by the police, Bierbauer said. “The video answers some questions and raises others.”
“What the technology does is it starts to take some of the variables, some of the uncertainties, out of eyewitness accounts,” he said. “We’re likely to be even more scrutinizing (and) skeptical of eyewitness accounts. We all know how notoriously inaccurate eyewitnesses can be. We’re in a position where we may have more accurate detail, but we still have to examine the perspective. It remains, in that regard, just as incumbent on the journalist to parse out what is the relevant detail. Technology is now ubiquitous, but that doesn’t mean that you necessarily get to the easy answers, or get to the answers easily.”
Commentary, good and bad, is everywhere, Bierbauer said, on cable news, talk radio and from “Uncle Fred in his pajamas sitting on his porch.” And it’s based on information collected from a variety of sources, good and bad.
Opinions have been rife, especially online where left-leaning websites not only publish commentary about aspects of the shooting but also about the reporting of the shooting by other media. Mother Jones posted a critique of Fox News host Greg Gutfeld, who said he refused to see race in this latest killing of a black man by a white cop.
Addicting Info scrutinized the conservative corners of the Twittersphere, discovering that Slager supporters had set up a defense fund for the accused murderer.
Salon published commentary about one of this newspaper’s stories on the shooting, alleging that The Post and Courier was protecting cops with its biased and deceitful reporting. Salon writer Joanna Rothkopf, a comedian and Internet actress, and Salon’s editor in chief, David Daley, declined to answer questions about Rothkopf’s commentary.
Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute said it’s easy for trained journalists to answer the basic who, what, where and when questions, but it can take time to figure out the why.
“That requires a different level of reporting,” Clark said. “And I think it also requires that reporters not fall into the trap of trying to find a single reason for a particular action, either by a victim or a cop. And that’s why I think we have to accept the fact that our understanding of an event will change over time, and that we can’t and shouldn’t wait until all the evidence is in before we start reporting and before we start talking about issues and events. That doesn’t mean that you slap stuff on websites without checking it out. That’s the easiest way for journalists to violate their responsibilities and become embarrassed by their mistakes.”
Some right-leaning websites such as Infowars.com also complained that the “mainstream media” was not skeptical enough of official police explanations. Yet it was precisely the reporting of official explanations that made the video especially important because of the contradictions it revealed.
On television, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow ran a 20-minute segment Tuesday evening that was notably free of opinion, conveying the known facts of the shooting and broadcasting segments of press conferences and a couple of interviews. The story was quickly picked up and aired by other national TV news outlets. Fox News reported on politics through the early evening and only much later aired a report about the shooting.
On radio, the story was delivered by NPR but also discussed at length on local stations such as WTMA-AM 1250, where news director Fred Storey, who is white, invited Z93 Jamz’s DJ Cass, who is black, on the air for a conversation and Q&A with listeners. The two men don’t necessarily share the same political views, but they agreed that the Scott case has been handled well so far, that there was reason to be proud of a community that has shunned violent protest, and that it’s likely police body cameras will become standardized, according to Storey.
It doesn’t matter the race of the victim, Storey said. “What Slager did was wrong. ... This case will be a landmark case for the United States.”
The range of coverage has been enormous, much of it taking its cue from local reporting.
Nicholas Lemann, a writer for The New Yorker and former dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, said journalism includes horoscope writers, investigative reporters and everything in between. It’s always been like that, he said, though the evolving media environment requires extra diligence on the part of professional journalists.
“There’s a real place for us, but we have to raise the level of our game,” he said. “It used to be that we had a kind of monopoly on information delivery and we don’t have that anymore,” not since the deregulation of broadcast media and the advent of cable television. “You’ve got to have a good answer to the question, ‘How are you providing something that’s uniquely valuable that isn’t available through crowd sourcing, etc.?’ We cannot any longer get away with just being purveyors of very basic information.”
This is how trained reporters can distinguish themselves and their news organizations within a growing media domain. It requires a bright light powered by rigorous professionalism. But that doesn’t mean there should be less room for the ranters and ravers.
“I think we’re living in First Amendment heaven,” Lemann said. “We have very robust freedom of speech. What the founders dreamed of was a country with incredible multitude of voices who could speak about anything. We have freedom of speech, not only certain kinds of speech. Because we’re in an unlicensed profession, I don’t like getting into the business of deciding who is and isn’t a journalist. ... It’s a very, very, very big tent.”