We’re at a turning point in American society right now. And even though ongoing protests have shown us there is an incredible unity among us, they have also shown us how institutions of oppression have deeply entwined themselves in our daily lives.
The media has come under fire in recent years for being too partisan and untrustworthy. And as a result of financial strain, news outlets have lost their independence. In theory, journalism is meant to keep the public informed and help hold the government accountable. But you can’t have an adequately informed public if the news media represents only the status quo.
People need to hear and see and understand how the systems they interact with every day are actively damaging communities and human rights. We can’t afford to be shown and to live two different realities any longer. There are harsh realities we have to be aware of now, or we lose our moment.
Here are three lessons or things the media can do to save itself from itself.
1. You owe no loyalty to your sources, especially cops
Journalists work too much with the police to be able to independently report on their actions.
The press and law enforcement seem like they should have a natural alliance. Police respond to crimes, journalists tell people about them. It’s very symbiotic.
For journalists, this partnership makes it easy to get sources to give regular news tips, and better access to stories.
For law enforcement, it allows them to create information funnels and informal quid pro quo situations for covering crime. This could be an “I’ll give you this scoop if you portray us in a good light” sort of situation.
Because many journalists feel a sense of loyalty to their sources, and are so deeply embedded in police work, it seems many are reluctant to view actions done by police as worthy of criticism (of course, this isn’t a blanket truth that applies to all journalists, especially now).
This lack of accountability by the press is advantageous to law enforcement. It makes it easy to view and use local newspapers as PR outlets.
However, much like officers “taking a knee” with protesters, the police’s partnership with journalists is performative. The second the partnership stops being advantageous to the police, it is swiftly and brutally severed.
This became clear over the days of protests across the nation this past week or more. Journalists who readily and clearly self-identified as members of the press during riots were arrested or tear-gassed, or shot at anyway; most often when attempting to capture incidents of violence and escalation instigated and perpetuated by the police.
Law enforcement is part of the State. That is, it is a government institution. If one of the main tenets of journalism is to be the “Fourth Estate," which monitors the State and holds it accountable, then it cannot align itself with any aspect of the State for which it is responsible for monitoring.
If journalists intend to maintain close sources and allies within the government, then the media is not a truly independent institution, and thus cannot be considered the “Fourth Estate.”
2. Draw a clear distinction between editorials and the news
During a live broadcast during the Cuomo Prime Time spot on CNN on Friday, May 29, you can clearly see how dangerous it is to mix editorializing and live news. This clip also perfectly encapsulates American journalism’s biggest problems all at once.
In the clip, around the 8:30 mark, CNN reporter Nick Valencia can be seen sheltering behind a line of law enforcement officers who have been trapped inside CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta by a group of protesters.
As protesters continue their standoff, Valencia makes several comments about the protesters.
“They seem like they’re antsy, Chris. They seem like they’re ready to charge. This is not a good look. This is not a good sign for the officers on the other side of it. And certainly not for the demonstrators who are coming towards us,” Valencia says.
Later, around the 11:30 mark, Chris Cuomo makes an alarmed comment over the air to Valencia, who is on the scene. “Are those guys in front preparing to light something on fire? See how that guy is wrapping his hand up…just keep an eye on that situation.”
“Well, they’ve already lit things on fire…” Valencia responds, proceeding to list the inanimate objects some protestors had already set fire to earlier that evening.
This is a hugely problematic clip for myriad reasons, but let’s tackle the most glaring one first.
This is a live broadcast of an event unfolding in real time. When you inject just one person’s commentary into a high-pressure situation like that, you have presented only one aspect of reality. This approach automatically shapes the story to fit one personal narrative.
In this moment, not only did Chris Cuomo suggest that this so-far peaceful protest may be about to LIGHT PEOPLE ON FIRE, he put his entire audience on high alert, anticipating an event that they had no reason to believe could happen.
Before we proceed, I’d like to make two points:
1. Property damage is not violence; buildings cannot feel.
2. You do not see violence against the police occur in this clip, and his clip is the only context we have to operate off of.
Valencia as well suggests that these protesters are violent, restless, and getting ready to attack the police and the reporters. Which they never end up doing, because that was clearly not their intention.
These protesters took a moment to relish in a profound demonstration of their power against a group which they deem to be their oppressor. In editorializing this live event, they robbed these protesters of the chance to speak for themselves, and told an entire nation how they feel about the protesters, and how they feel about the police. They chose sides.
This isn’t the only example of inappropriate editorializing I’ve seen either. Local news is rampant with journalists qualifying the protests. Commenting on whether or not the demonstrations are peaceful, or destructive, or violent. Whether property destruction is right or wrong. Whether property destruction warrants police action or not.
When you attempt to qualify the story, it warps reality. News cannot become a series of events handpicked and editorialized to fit a predetermined thesis.
It has become clear that news outlets must stop editorializing on live TV, and make a clear distinction between what is considered to be an editorial piece and what is considered news reporting. The people deserve that kind of clarity in their news.
And though there is no way to completely eliminate any bias, it’s bad for democracy to allow cable news networks to dominate the air space with a version of events that has been manipulated to fit a political position.
That brings me to my last point.
3. Advocate for public funding
We need more publicly funded news outlets.
Proper journalism is not beholden to publishers, owners or advertisers. It can’t be a truly independent institution if it is. Our current dependence is a major reason why reporting on climate change and other systemic issues — like racism — is so difficult.
Our current model for journalism is not working. I would argue that the mass layoffs due to COVID-19 and the subsequent and intense pullback in advertisements has proven that.
If people are unwilling to subscribe in numbers necessary to keep publications afloat, and if relying heavily on money from advertisements is unsustainable, then it’s time to find another solution.
We need more publicly funded journalism. I am aware and considerate of concerns regarding the true independence of the news media if it is funded by the government, but that’s an incorrect way of looking at public funds.
Being publicly funded does not mean the government owns the media. It means the people do. And if journalism is truly supposed to serve the people by keeping the government in check, then being publicly funded is a requirement that ensures the proper independence for our “Fourth Estate.”
The independence granted from being publicly-funded offers more benefits than just the protection of freedom of the press. It should help strengthen workers’ rights as well.
In our current model, news outlets are often too worried about the potential consequences that come with publishing stories from whistleblowers. Journalism can and should be an outlet that offers a free and protected space for workers to speak out against injustices without fearing negative repercussions from their employers or the government.
I think the biggest hurdle to overcome when we talk about reforming institutions is that radical ideas are often met by pragmatists with demands of “how?”
But I’d argue that if you believe something is truly right, no matter how far-fetched it seems, then you cannot worry about the “how." You cannot let the “how” become a roadblock to progress.
Before the unprecedented $1,200 stimulus check for (some) Americans, the prevailing idea was that sort of relief package from the government was impossible. We didn’t even know how to do it, people argued.
But we figured it out.
Before the recorded murder of George Floyd, the idea of abolishing the police was widely considered to be so absurd that it should be taboo. Now the Minneapolis City Council has said it will disband their current police force and start over, investing in more community initiatives.
All structural change is impossible until just before the moment it happens.
But you have to be serious about it, despite the risks. If you believe something is the right thing to do, then you have to figure out how to do it. Otherwise, you are complicit in the system that opposes the change, and you cannot survive in the long-term.