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Sept. 28, 2020, 9:38 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Allissa Richardson thinks it’s time to shatter a few myths about citizen journalism

“None of us could have predicted the impact of police body cams as conflicting narratives that continue to compete for the accurate portrayal of what happened.”

One of the hardest parts about publishing a book for Allissa Richardson is knowing that her work will never truly be done.

In April, Richardson, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism and a 2021 fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, published Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest Journalism, which chronicles and examines how “three overlapping eras of domestic terror against African American people and explain how storytellers during each period documented its atrocities through journalism.” It tells the stories of 15 mobile journalists/activists and how they used their smartphones and Twitter to document the movement, building on Richardson’s research into how marginalized communities use mobile and social media to produce innovative forms of journalism in times of crisis.

In early June, Richardson was gearing up for a virtual book tour when George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her book was no longer a historical snapshot of how mobile journalism impacted coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement. It was an ongoing story.

Richardson started her career working for Jet and Ebony magazines. She loved going through the archives of the magazines and learning about the roles they played in documenting history. At the same time, she was disappointed that she had never been exposed to Black press history in her journalism education. Knowing that she wanted to teach journalism, she took a job at Morgan State University, an HBCU in Baltimore.

Within her first year, she recognized that the iPhone was going to be a game changer in journalism. In 2010, when Apple released the first iPhones with front-facing cameras, Richardson saw them as a way for journalists to produce their own stand-up news reports and “really democratize the way that people do visual journalism,” she said. Her students at Morgan State didn’t feel safe carrying around heavy, expensive camera equipment in some parts of the city.

“When this iPhone came out, I thought maybe this is a way that I can keep my students safe,” Richardson recalled. “I can keep tabs on where they are with the Find My iPhone feature. And we can just experiment with how far this device will let us go in terms of creating something that is credible, that looks good, and that sounds good. I built the nation’s first mobile-first newsroom, and it was called the Morgan MoJo Lab. My students and I began to experiment with these devices in ways that people thought were crazy at first. I had the chairperson calling the cellphones toys. I had all kinds of folks telling me that’s not real journalism and that it’s not here to stay.”

Still, Richardson’s pioneering work was recognized. The executive director of GlobalGirl Media asked her to come to South Africa to teach young women living with HIV/AIDS about mobile journalism. Richardson was then invited to Morocco to set up another mobile journalism lab where the students were witnessing the Arab Spring in neighboring countries and were curious about how mobile journalism was used to cover Occupy Wall Street in the United States.

In 2014, Richardson, still pioneering teaching mobile journalism’s role in social uprisings, was a Knight Nieman Visiting Fellow. She developed a MOOC to teach veteran journalists, citizens, and journalism students how to report news using only tablets, MP3 players, or smartphones.

Her work during her Nieman visiting fellowship solidified that she wanted to teach full-time, so she pursued her PhD immediately afterward. During that time, she devoted her study to the historic arc of Black people using the technologies of their day to do advocacy journalism.

“From slave pamphlets to newspapers to magazines to TV to, now, cellphones, Black people have manipulated those different kinds of technologies to tell stories about human rights and civil rights,” she said. “A lot of the work that these activists are doing is journalism. Often it rivals what professionals are doing, because [citizens] an be there on the scene in ways that seasoned journalists can’t because newsrooms have shrunk so much and because we can’t be everywhere all at once.

“My book is a culmination of 10 years of observations and teaching that we began as an experiment in 2010…We can’t unsee everything that these mobile journalists have captured. What do we want to do about what we’ve seen? How can we move forward as a nation as a result of their journalism?”

I talked to Richardson about her book and where American journalism can go from here. Our conversation is lightly edited for length and clarity.

Hanaa’ Tameez: What do you think are some of the big takeaways from your book that early-career journalists, journalism students, and newsrooms can apply today?

Allissa Richardson: One of the biggest takeaways from this is that we have to shatter two myths about citizen journalism.

The first myth that we had about citizen journalism is that it was going to completely democratize the way that we do journalism, newsmaking, and news production, and that hasn’t really been true. What happened instead is, yes, you have these bursts of information that break through. You do have people who are able to get a narrative through that you might not have normally heard.

What we didn’t anticipate is that it would go in many directions. And so, just like these activists have their own cameras and their own versions of what happened on the scene, none of us could have predicted the impact of police body cams as conflicting narratives that continue to compete for the accurate portrayal of what happened. Instead of us talking about the democratization of journalism or the democratization of platforms and opening up these new platforms for new voices, we have to shift our thinking to think of it as surveillance versus “sousveillance.”

Surveillance is looking from on high. It’s what security cameras and dash cams and body cams do, it’s what dash cams and body cams do, and blue light security cameras. It’s what the “authoritative gaze” is, but sousveillance is quite different. It’s looking from below, and it’s attempting to counter an official report that may have been lies. It’s very subjective, meaning it’s steeped in history and steeped with the realization of knowing you probably will tell a lie if you don’t capture this footage. And so you’re going to capture this even though it will pose great danger to you, because it’s important that a different version of this narrative goes out. In the book, I call this the “weighty baggage” of knowing that you probably won’t be believed anyway when you film it. But it’s necessary — there’s almost a cultural obligation to do so because you know the legacy of the lies that have been told before. A lot of the activists express this cultural necessity to film, even though they know they will probably face backlash.

So that’s the first myth that had to be abolished: That [citizen journalism] was just going to open up the floodgates for all these new voices without consequence.

The second myth that I think this book really shattered is that I think people went into the 2000s thinking, “Oh my goodness, there’s going to be this digital divide, and Black and brown people will left behind. They will have no way to connect to the internet, there’s going to be this new information age, and they just will not have a way to be involved in it.”

But the data shows that African Americans and Latinx communities overindex on social media platforms at any given time of the day. When I began to look at the hard statistics to see why it is that African American and Latinx communities outpace whites in their use of these platforms, I dug below all the memes and jokes to see that this is really a form of journalism that has been subversive. It’s been powerful in terms of setting the agenda for mainstream outlets. We need look no further than the events of this summer to see just how powerful Black Twitter has been, for example. I should also point out that a lot of this work is being done by Black women, which is phenomenal. When you realize the legacy of civil rights, organizing in this nation, it has always been that we credit the charismatic Black men — Martin, Malcolm, Medgar. The John Lewises of the world. People often don’t remember that John Lewis was aided by Diane Nash. So many women throughout the civil rights movement propped up the movement and did the dirty work, so to speak — they rolled up their sleeves, they made posters, they made food. They strategized the entire Montgomery Bus Boycott, for example; a group of women professors did that. But we don’t hear that all the time.

But now, thanks to social media, we know that two Black women made up Blackout Tuesday. We know that a Black woman made up #OscarsSoWhite, we know that a Black woman started Me Too. We know that three black women formed Black Lives Matter. These are some of the most powerful social justice movements of this millennium. The fact that the popularity of these movements was aided by cellphones and social media wasn’t lost on me. It was important for me to shatter the myth of whose authoritative gaze mattered. It was also important for me to call out and give credit to the Black women who were finally getting their due, finally getting their shine in terms of being the masterful organizers that they were.

Tameez: What impact have social media and smartphones had on this notion of objectivity that has existed for so long in the news media industry?

Richardson: I think objectivity has always been a myth. I think when we have said “objectivity,” it’s been a euphemism for writing for the white middle class reader, specifically male readers. But we need to realize that not just white people are reading the news. People from all walks of life are reading it, and if we’re recognizing that, then we’re also recognizing that we need to incorporate their voices and their images in ways that aren’t just exploitive, but explanatory. A lot of journalism that I’m seeing these days reflects those values. It says that the aim should be transparency, not objectivity. A journalist should be transparent about their stances and about where they’re coming from. They should be transparent about how their identity is informing what they’re telling you. That is more meaningful than this false veneer of objectivity.

There have been great papers written about this — a great op-ed by Wesley Lowery just this summer, and a colleague of mine here at USC, Gabe Kahn, wrote a great piece about transparency versus objectivity. I think the new goal of journalism is for people to be honest about where they’re coming from, to be honest about their blind spots and about how their backgrounds may have informed their reporting.

Objectivity has not served the marginalized in the past. Trying to pretend to be objective, or to refer to data only and not feelings, are things that have gotten us into this mess of how we portray people of color in general.

Tameez: What has the response been to your book?

Richardson: The book came out two weeks before Mr. Floyd was killed. In the book, I talk about the cases of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, and Sandra Bland. It gives this historical snapshot, but more names are added to this really horrible list of people who have lost their lives to police brutality every day. One of the more tragic parts of writing this book is knowing that it will never really be done.

The reception I got this summer was really warm. Some people are glad that the book situates the acts of witnessing and mobile journalism in the same canon. Some people admitted they never knew that African-Americans made these kinds of contributions to journalism. And people told me, “I’ve never heard of some of these Black publications that are cited in the book. And now I’m going to teach them in my class.”

I’ve been invited on television to talk about how to responsibly use the images in these videos [of police brutality]. I was appalled this summer to see that the George Floyd killing was shown over and over and over again without blurring his face or giving any kind of trigger warning. Sometimes it would just pop up as B-roll. When I can’t shield my children, who are six and eight, from these images, I get upset. I wrote a piece for The Atlantic that talked about how we should use these images responsibly. A lot of newsrooms asked me to come and talk to them about what they should be doing because they say ‘Oh my gosh, we do this all the time and we never realized that we’re contributing to the problem.’

I had the opening plenary session at the joint NABJ/NAHJ conference. I did an honest appraisal of all the trauma that Black journalists are experiencing while trying to cover this kind of news but also trying to stay sane and healthy and happy. I ended up getting invited to talk about mental health for a number of journalistic organizations.

Tameez: After reading your book, what can newsroom leaders do to help support Black journalists and other marginalized journalists in their newsrooms?

Richardson: Newsrooms have to be careful to not assign these kinds of stories only to Black journalists. A number of Black journalists approached me after the NABJ conference and said they’re the default person in the newsroom to cover all things racism. It’s exhausting and dehumanizing and demoralizing that the newsroom sees them as the only person who can articulate what systemic injustice looks like. It’s everybody’s responsibility to figure that out.

When white people die violently, we make sure that we give their final moments dignity. We do no keep those images in rotation. Think, for example, about these really heinous images of [journalist] Daniel Pearl being decapitated. They horrified and traumatized me as a young journalist at Northwestern. [That video] used to exist online, but we’ve done a really good job of scrubbing that from the internet. There used to be footage online that showed people jumping from the Twin Towers on 9/11. I’m so glad that that has been scrubbed from the internet. I don’t need to see that footage to know that something horrible happened that day. But when it comes to Black people, we’re so used to seeing violence against them — whether it’s the image of the slave with the crisscross of scars across his back, or lynching photographs, or civil rights photographs where you see young people being attacked by German Shepherds or tossed about by fire hoses. America has become used to seeing Black bodies in peril. Newsrooms need to give Black lives and Black death the same dignity as we give white death.

I want newsrooms to be sure they’re very conscious about how they’re using these videos, because they’re actually reinforcing white supremacy when they show Black people being shot this way with no justice attached to it. I’m happy that some of the videos are getting harder and harder to find. But there’s still a lot of work to be done, a lot of education to be done to explain to journalists how this kind of dehumanization leads not to justice, but to exploitation and retraumatization of a community.

Tameez: This year, as a Berkman fellow, you’re researching how marginalized communities produce journalism in times of crisis. What trends are you seeing, both positive and negative?

Richardson: We never would have known about some of these narratives had a citizen journalist not been there doing mobile journalism at the right place and at the right time, even though it’s traumatizing to them. A 17-year-old girl shot the George Floyd video. I do think that it’s very useful to have these kind of videos because there is still a large contingent of the United States population that does not believe that police brutality is a thing, or believes that people deserve this kind of brutality. It was inspiring to see, this summer, a multi-ethnic coalition of people out there protesting Mr. Floyd’s death, risking their lives during a pandemic. Not just traumatized Black people, but people from all walks of life. I don’t think you’d have that without the footage.

The downside to that, though, is that the people who shoot this footage are often the only ones who face punishment. Think about Eric Garner, and Ramsey Orta, who recorded that. He told Time Magazine he wishes he had minded his business that day, because he’s been harassed ever since. He was brought up on gun charges into Rikers and he was only released from Rikers because of the Covid-19 appeal, because everybody was trying to release nonviolent offenders. He gave scathing interviews to The Intercept and other publications, saying that he was poisoned while in jail, he was constantly harassed by the corrections officers there. That’s what can happen to these witnesses.

All the activists I’ve talked to reported that they had some kind of uncomfortable run-in with police after they did their witnessing. Some were called by their Twitter handle when they went out to protest. Or they were followed and photographed by unmarked cars. They seem like things out of a movie, but they’re not. When they shared these things with me in the book, I was just aghast. I had no idea that that was the cost of bearing witness while Black.

Mobile journalism has become a force for many of the modern civil rights movements that we’ve seen. It’s grown over the last decade from something that I used to teach youth civic engagement to something that has now toppled governments and caused our own U.S. government to question how we want to move forward with policing here in America. That huge, seismic shift is one that I’ll never get tired of studying.

Photo by DaJuana Jones.

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     Sept. 28, 2020, 9:38 a.m.
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