This week’s essential reads: The key reads this week are The New York Times’ David Carr on the role of Twitter in informing the world about Ferguson, a pair of posts by The Guardian’s James Ball on the social media dissemination and censorship of ISIS’ video of James Foley, and Clay Shirky on the endgame for newspapers and journalists there.
Police aggressiveness and media coverage in Ferguson: In the second week of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police, the targeting, threats, and violence toward journalists only escalated, with at least six more journalists arrested, including Getty Images photographer Scott Olson. Ryan Devereaux, a reporter for First Look Media’s The Intercept, spent the night in jail, being arrested (though not charged) because of “failure to disperse,” as he explained in a first-person account.
In addition to the arrests, at least four reporters caught police on tape threatening to mace, shoot, “bust your head,” or kill them. (The officer who made the latter threat was suspended.) Forty-eight media organizations signed a letter protesting the violent treatment of journalists and the lack of information being provided about those incidents and Brown’s shooting. As the week went on, journalists began being harassed and threatened by protesters as well when they attempted to record looting.
Bob Butler, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, chastised the police for their disturbingly aggressive behavior, and The Huffington Post’s Jack Mirkinson made the case for why the treatment of reporters matters: When police arrest or threaten journalists, it’s not just about them. “They are trying to decrease the flow of information that the journalists can provide the rest of us. They are trying to keep all of us in the dark,” he wrote. The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi explained how reporters were adjusting to the stonewalling and danger in a situation that ranged beyond what many of them had ever been trained for, and on Medium, Quinn Norton gave some useful advice for reporters on covering civil unrest. Columbia Journalism Review’s Jonathan Peters added a primer for journalists on their First Amendment rights in these situations.
A few publications highlighted the stellar work being done by journalists in Ferguson: Columbia Journalism Review’s Deron Lee gave a thorough review of the excellent coverage by local news organizations, and Time’s Olivier Laurent went behind the coverage by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s photojournalists, while Poynter’s Benjamin Mullin looked at the work the Riverfront Times, St. Louis’ alt-weekly, has done on the protests. The Huffington Post announced it would establish a crowdfunded fellowship with the St. Louis Beacon to keep a reporter in Ferguson for the next year, though many, including The Awl’s Matt Buchanan, Ad Age’s Simon Dumenco, and 10,000 Words’ Karen Fratti, wondered why such a massive media organization is crowdfunding a position it should be able to easily pay for itself. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram argued that it’s a smart move for both HuffPo and the Beacon.
There were some questions about the media’s behavior in Ferguson, though. Photojournalist Abe Van Dyke explained why he was embarrassed to be part of the media in Ferguson — it reached a point, he said, where the media was “no longer simply reporting what is happening but rather becoming a hindrance and making the situation worse.” Ryan Schuessler, who had been covering Ferguson with Al Jazeera America, also expressed disgust at the media’s tone-deaf behavior, concluding that “In the beginning there was a recognizable need for media presence, but this is the other extreme. They need time to work through this as a community, without the cameras.” Similarly, BagNews’ Michael Shaw said the media presence has gotten so heavy that it’s become difficult to tell what’s the story and what’s spectacle.
Noah Rothman of the conservative blog Hot Air questioned whether the press was too closely identifying itself with the protesters, a point echoed by Politico’s Dylan Byers. But Slate’s Josh Voorhees countered that the press is siding with protesters because “what the people in the streets of Ferguson want is the same thing the journalists were sent there to find” — namely, the truth about Michael Brown’s killing. M. Scott Brauer of the photojournalism blog dvafoto provided a good roundup of the discussion of both police brutality toward journalists and media coverage of the protests.
Following Ferguson on Twitter: Much of this action on the streets in Ferguson was reaching us through the filter of Twitter, which for many people was a nonstop feed of the latest reports, photos, and video from both professional reporters and protesters. The New York Times’ David Carr argued that this story highlights one of Twitter’s greatest strengths in its ability to capture the interests and informational needs of a broad range of news consumers that the traditional media often misses, including communities of color. Politico’s Byron Tau explained that it took the arrests of two reporters last week for Ferguson to finally grab the establishment political press’s attention, and a Pew study showed that while Twitter picked up the story before cable news, their attention rose and fell mostly in tandem.
There are downsides to the way Twitter mediates events like Ferguson’s protests as well: Politico’s Alex Byers talked to several experts who said Twitter’s free-for-all nature fused with the chaos in Ferguson “to create an environment that spotlights startling developments over measured action or solutions.” Still, many users have remarked on how much better Twitter has been for following the situation in Ferguson than Facebook, which has been inundated with videos of people being dumped with buckets of ice water for most of the week.
Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram highlighted several reasons for the differences between the two platforms, focusing on Facebook’s symmetrical following model and the algorithms behind its News Feed. Likewise, Poynter’s Sam Kirkland noted that Facebook’s algorithm has prioritized personalized relevance over newness, which hurts it for minute-by-minute stories like Ferguson. Digiday’s John McDermott pointed to the social norms on Facebook that emphasize fun, light-hearted material at the expense of current events. The American Journalism Review’s Lisa Rossi advised readers to spread their news consumption across platforms, and Mandy Brown of The Verge called for more transparent and sophisticated filters that can help us comprehend information at the same speed we’re sharing it.
The Guardian’s Dan Gillmor praised the citizen journalism coming out of Ferguson, particularly the valuable documentation of police brutality. At the Local News Lab, Josh Stearns looked at what local journalists can do to aid community-driven information efforts like those fueling the Ferguson story, and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis emphasized the importance of journalists to start serving communities by listening to and understanding them, rather than charging in from the outside.
A brutal execution, and censorship questions: The Islamic militant group ISIS posted a video on YouTube this week of its execution of freelance photojournalist James Foley, who was kidnapped in Syria two years ago. As The New York Times explained, the video was meant to intimidate the U.S. into stopping its airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, and concluded with a threat to kill another freelance journalist. President Obama said he was appalled by Foley’s beheading but declared he would continue the airstrikes, and Obama administration officials revealed they had tried and failed a secret operation to rescue Foley earlier this year.
Reuters’ Jack Shafer traced some of the history of videotaped murders of journalists and argued that ISIS will accomplish none of its goals regarding American policy and public opinion as a result of this video, though it may serve as an effective recruiting tool. The New York Times’ Ravi Somaiya and Christine Haughney examined the immense dangers journalists are facing both at home and abroad.
Foley’s friends and colleagues paid tribute to his immense courage and selflessness. You can get a good sense of the kind of man he was through articles by Vox’s Max Fisher, CNN’s Brian Stelter, and BuzzFeed’s Sheera Frenkel.
The discussion also shifted to the spread of the video on social media, as journalists voiced their opposition to other journalists and news organizations who posted screenshots and clips from the video. In the U.K., police warned that sharing and even viewing the video could be grounds for arrest under terrorism legislation, something Techdirt’s Mike Masnick scoffed at. News organizations that published images from the video, several of them tabloids belonging to News Corp, defended their decisions.
As Foreign Policy’s Shane Harris and The Guardian’s Hannah Jane Parkinson reported, the social networks themselves, particularly YouTube and Twitter, scrambled to block the photo, with Twitter suspending accounts that post graphic images. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram objected to that decision, arguing that the decision over whether to view images or footage from the execution should be our decision as users.
The Guardian’s James Ball pointed out the departure of this decision from Twitter’s very laissez-faire past on free speech. He concluded that “if Twitter has decided to make editorial decisions, even on a limited basis, it is vital that its criteria are clearly and openly stated in advance, and that they are consistently and evenly applied,” and PandoDaily’s David Holmes also called for consistency on Twitter’s part. The Berkman Center’s David Weinberger noted what a difficult decision this is for YouTube and Twitter, saying that by becoming used as a news distribution system, “Twitter has been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, it did not ask for.”
As for the personal decision to view, The Guardian’s Ball urged serious self-examination before clicking on such links, while also wondering if we’re disproportionately concerned about graphic images of white Westerners. And Charlie Warzel of BuzzFeed used this as an example of the downside of Twitter’s (generally) unfiltered stream of news.
Reading roundup: There were a few stories about the media this week that didn’t have to do with violence and repression. Here’s a sampling:
— Gawker published an internal Time Inc. spreadsheet, obtained from a union representative, that showed that Sports Illustrated online staffers are being evaluated based on, among other things, producing “content that [is] beneficial to advertiser relationship.” Those evaluations may have played a role in SI’s recent layoffs. A Time Inc. exec “clarified” to CNN’s Brian Stelter that that evaluation means “Does what they create or who they are capture the attention of Madison Avenue?” which, as Politico’s Dylan Byers noted, sounds like kind of the same thing. Time’s Norman Pearlstine gave a further defense to New York’s Gabriel Sherman, calling the reaction overblown.
— After experimenting with the change earlier this summer, Twitter officially added some favorited tweets from people you follow to users’ feeds. It seems exactly no one liked the change, and The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer said that while we have already been seeing tweets from people we don’t follow in our streams (those would be ads), this change is damaging because it breaks Twitter’s “favorite” function, and TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas made a similar point a bit more bluntly.
— The anonymous duo who busted BuzzFeed’s Benny Johnson for serial plagiarism went after CNN’s Fareed Zakaria this week, accusing him of lifting from a wide variety of publications. Zakaria was accused of plagiarism in 2012, and a spokesman for Time magazine, which reviewed his work at that point, said it would review his material again, though The Washington Post and CNN said they saw nothing in these new allegations to justify a new review. Zakaria offered his own defense to Politico’s Dylan Byers, and Steve Buttry gave some tips for avoiding plagiarism through attribution and linking.
— Finally, three smart pieces on where the news business is headed: Journalism professor Nikki Usher in Columbia Journalism Review with some insights into her research on the new wave of news aggregation apps, French newspaper exec Frederic Filloux on the future of mobile news apps, and NYU professor Clay Shirky with a warning call to journalists working in newspapers.