Black Lives Matter: the movement, the organization, and how journalists get it wrong

Photo by Dorret (Flickr) Editor’s Note: This post was produced as part of a graduate course on media writing and storytelling taught by the editors of Columbia Journalism Review.

Last month, The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb detailed the birth and development of Black Lives Matter as few others had before him. Central to his analysis was his clear differentiation between the sprawling social movement that has dominated headlines and the civil rights organization with more than 30 chapters across the United States.

The former is an ongoing, unstructured protest of racial inequality, including in the criminal justice system, while the latter has a clearly defined platform encompassing a range of issues. “That contentious distinction between the organization and the movement is part of the debate about what Black Lives Matter is and where it will go next,” Cobb writes.

Such nuance rarely makes it into Black Lives Matter coverage. Decentralized social movements present inherent difficulties for journalists. The bulk of stories on the topic veer toward short takes on individual protests, video clips from disrupted political rallies, and 140-character statements culled from Twitter. Such bite-sized pieces rarely allow for the space to flesh out the intricacies of Black Lives Matter—the movement or the organization—which may narrow or obscure their respective messages as they reach the public. Cobb’s piece reads as something of a response to this murkiness, but it also provides a worthy blueprint for future coverage.

“I think people did not try to talk about what Black Lives Matter is trying to achieve—what their goals were, who they are,” Cobb adds in an interview with CJR. “That’s why there hasn’t been a lot of coverage concerning trans people’s rights and gay and lesbian rights.”

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The three-word slogan itself, meanwhile, doesn’t necessarily connote involvement in either the movement or the organization. That disconnect often manifests itself in daily pieces, such as CNN’s coverage of a March protest at a Donald Trump rally, where demonstrators were chanting “black lives matter” as they were forced out.

The report included something of a caveat: “Trump supporters shouted at the protesters as they chanted the slogan of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is aimed at denouncing police brutality and racial discrimination.” Such wording oversimplifies the web of grievances voiced by individuals or groups identifying with the movement. The headline and social language, meanwhile, identified the demonstrators as “Black Lives Matter protesters,” which conflates them with members of the more structured organization.

These assumptions or shortcuts have been widespread. And perhaps they’re unavoidable—the slight distinctions between the organization and the movement are difficult to explain in a news story. And as Cobb detailed in The New Yorker, this messaging conundrum poses real challenges to the future of both—not just news coverage thereof.

Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times is among a short list of reporters who have published in-depth attempts to break down the complex topic. Pearce, who often covers police violence and social movements, wrote a straightforward explainer in October in an attempt to walk readers through the various definitions.

“So when you hear the term ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Pearce wrote, “the words could be serving as a political rallying cry or referring to the activist organization. Or it could be the fuzzily applied label used to describe a wide range of protests and conversations focused on racial inequality.”

So journalists have to be careful about using them interchangeably. Protesters chanting “black lives matter” does not necessarily make them Black Lives Matter activists.

The best coverage, including Pearce’s simple breakdown and Cobb’s New Yorker feature, threads this needle by putting Black Lives Matter into historical context. Cobb not only provides a detailed account of the movement and organization’s creation stories but also contrasts their horizontal organization to the more hierarchical civil rights movements or organizations of decades past.

That sense of history is crucial to analyzing Black Lives Matter, similar to how history is necessary to understand the communities in which the movement and organization both operate. “Especially in issues of race, it’s almost always deeper than the immediate reaction I see, it’s deeper than the protests today,” The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery says. “A lot of times as journalists we go into stories thinking we know more than we do.”

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Jephie Bernard is a Columbia Journalism School student. Follow her on Twitter @JephieBernard.