How to Chill the Independent Journalist

Facing arrest without institutional backup

After her arrest last November, Alisen Redmond quit covering Occupy Atlanta. She felt that she had to. At the time, Redmond was the news editor of Kennesaw State University’s Sentinel, which had been covering the makeshift Occupy encampment in Woodruff Park, in downtown Atlanta, before it caught the attention of mainstream media. On the night of November 5th, Redmond was arrested while wearing a press pass with photo identification, charged with “obstruction of traffic,” and spent the next 14 hours in jail. At her arraignment, she says, the judge warned her that—journalist or not—a second arrest could keep her in jail until her March court date.

To some extent, Redmond concedes, “the arrest worked to chill my speech”—at first, because she shied away from reporting during the weeks it took her to find an attorney. But then, after the fall semester, when she stopped working for the weekly, she lost a support system. She would not have been covering street demonstrations as a student, with her university and groups like the Student Press Law Center behind her. She would have been a freelancer. “If something happened,” Redmond says, “I’d have no one to call.”

Of the 65 journalists arrested since September while covering Occupy Wall Street and its offspring around the country, nearly all of them have had no one to call. According to a list compiled by Josh Stearns, Journalism and Public Media Campaign Director for Free Press, the media policy reform group, the overwhelming majority of those arrested are independent journalists. Some were stringing for mainstream organizations at the time; others, for alternative media, community outlets, or the student press. But a particular feature of the current Occupy moment, coming as it has after a decade of downsizing in journalism, is that the journalists least able to tussle with the criminal justice system—young, alternative, lacking institutional backing, or struggling to pay rent, let alone legal fees—are also the ones who have had to do so.

How many, like Redmond, after weighing the costs of covering Occupy, backed away from the story?

Some journalists claim not to see much of an effect from police activity. “There probably aren’t many journalists who’ll say, ‘don’t assign me to Occupy anymore,’” says Sara Steffens, the Newspaper Guild’s Oakland-based organizer who also runs an “Occupied Journalists” Facebook page, which tracks arrests and harassment of journalists covering Occupy demonstrations.

Still, in addition to being genuinely impressed by her Bay Area colleagues, Steffens’s assessment of their journalistic gumption is also the company line. It is a rare young journalist with ambitions beyond covering the Kardashians who will admit that police intimidation kept them from a serious story. “The more the New York Police Department tries to get in the way,” says John Knefel of Salon and Radio Dispatch, “the more determined journalists have become.” (Knefel was arrested on December 12th in New York).

But perhaps because of the circumstances of my own arrest in late 2011, I’m more attuned to the possibility that police aggression towards journalists during Occupy events has worked to suppress coverage.

A few days before interviewing Redmond, I was observing a weeknight planning session for the “Stop Stop and Frisk” campaign, activities by a loose-knit group of activists, including some from Occupy Wall Street. The group courts arrest in front of police stations in order to raise awareness about the New York Police Department’s controversial policy of frisking so many young black and Hispanic men in the city. As members batted about possible locations for their first civil disobedience in the Bronx, I realized they were talking about doing it in the same precinct where, last December, I was arrested at a small Occupy the Bronx protest. I have learned that handcuffs can be a part of covering street demonstrations. Should I still cover the stop-and-frisk demo?

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 na├»ve 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.

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Carla Murphy , a graduate of the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, is an independent journalist. Tags: , , , ,