I weighed the options. And hesitated. It is one thing to be arrested as an independent journalist in a centrally located public square, where mainstream news cameras and spectators function as Klieg lights. They increase the likelihood that police officers involved will be held accountable. But it is another to get arrested in more distant outposts. Working journalists, after all, have been corralled and arrested, and occasionally punched, at demonstrations around the country, some on videotape.
I often wonder about other independent journalists who have tried to cover Occupy events in out-of-the-limelight spaces. I also wonder about the communities who rely on them, and on student journalists, for news coverage that speaks to their particular concerns. “The news landscape has changed to the point where grassroots media is more important” than ever, argues Susan Mernit, editor-in-chief of the Oakland Local, a three-year-old startup that uses freelance and citizen journalists.
But risking entanglement in the criminal justice system is a high bar for a student or independent journalist earning somewhere between nothing and $250 per article. As the potential risks of reporting rise, fewer independent journalists will cover these stories, even though they matter to their respective audiences. For example, the minority and immigrant communities I cover could not care less about Occupy, per se. But they are interested in key points of Occupy’s platform, like economic inequality and stopping home foreclosures.
More than ever, mainstream organizations must continue to press city governments for reform of police practices that interfere with newsgathering. “We’re not naïve enough to think we can stop journalists from being arrested,” says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which has been working with Chicago officials to prepare for this May’s G-8 conference. “But we can come up with procedures to get them back out on the street as fast as possible.”
And if it hasn’t been clear before, the Occupy arrests should underscore that journalism institutions must shift the terms of public debate from Who is a Journalist to What is Journalism. From Oakland to Atlanta to New York, reports confirm that individual police officers feel very comfortable selecting who is or isn’t a legitimate journalist. Sometimes, brand awareness counts. Many other times, notably in New York City, it did not. In any event, it’s not their call. Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, points out that “To the extent that we’re still debating who’s a journalist, the cops can’t decide.”
And finally, independent journalists myself included, must become savvy about how to stay safe and get the story. Natasha Lennard, a project officer with the International News Safety Institute has been organizing training sessions to help journalists learn, for instance, how to navigate a crowd. Trainings are announced on the INSI-North America’s Facebook page.
I ended up covering the stop-and-frisk rally. On the day, protesters decided not to do civil disobedience and opted to march, instead. If their strategy had been less inside the lines, I am not sure what I would have done.