Philando Castile, Facebook Live, and a new chapter for citizen journalism

A crowd of community members gather outside the Governor's Residence in Saint Paul

We’ve seen cellphone videos of the police killings of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and too many others. Earlier this week, the fatal police shooting of Louisiana man Alton Sterling was captured from two angles. Such imagery not only informs people about specific events, but also gives news organizations fodder to more aggressively challenge systemic issues of police tactics and law enforcement internal accountability measures.

But just one day after Sterling’s chilling death, a new variety emerged in the increasingly familiar genre. Past videos allowed viewers to see uncut incidents of alleged brutality after the fact. Diamond Reynolds’s Facebook Live video Wednesday night, captured just seconds after her boyfriend Philando Castile was mortally wounded by a cop during a traffic stop, did so in real-time. Even more striking was her measured narration of the bloody scene: Reynolds became a broadcaster.

“I wanted everybody in the world to see what the police do, and how they roll,” she said in front of a gaggle of reporters on Thursday. “I didn’t do it for pity. I didn’t do it for fame. I did it so that the world knows these police aren’t here to protect and serve us.”

Reynolds was both victim and reporter—a citizen journalist, ultimately. The term gained prominence about a decade ago as advancements in digital technology and the financial downturn of the media industry began to converge. But only recently, with the continued progression of mobile devices and maturation of social publishing platforms, has the impact of citizen journalism become tangible in the United States. Whereas citizen journalists often drove media coverage of the so-called Arab Spring, for example, they’re now performing a similar service in the national discussion of race and policing in the US.

Social networks like Twitter have helped amplify such individual voices, with content shared nationwide in hours, if not minutes. But Facebook’s real-time video capabilities provide a larger and more direct conduit between incidents and far-away audiences. While there are some hitches to this sort of third-party publishing—Reynolds’s Facebook video was temporarily inaccessible due to a supposed “technical glitch”—its potential reach can’t be overstated. Reynolds’s broadcast was viewed more than 3.5 million times on Facebook alone as of 2 p.m. Thursday.

Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile of St. Paul, cries outside the governor’s residence in St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday, July 7, 2016. Castile was shot and killed after a traffic stop by police in Falcon Heights, Wednesday night. Image by Jim Mone/AP Photo

“I appreciate [Reynolds] streaming that video live, because we never would have known what happened had she not put that out there like that,” Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile, told CNN on Thursday morning. 

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Reynolds’s live-stream Wednesday did not show the leadup to her boyfriend being shot—or the shooting itself. But it does showcase the immediate aftermath, as a slumping Castile bleeds profusely and a police officer, gun still drawn, continues screaming into the car. Amid this chaotic scene, Reynolds had the wherewithal to both begin broadcasting on Facebook and setting the scene for viewers from her point of view. She no doubt risked her life in doing so.

Here’s a transcript of the first moments of her broadcast: 

Reynolds: Stay with me. We got pulled over for a busted tail light in the back and the police he’s he’s he’s covered….They killed my boyfriend. He’s licensed to carry. He was trying to get out his ID and his wallet out his pocket, and he let the officer know that he was, that he had a firearm and he was reaching for his wallet, and the officer just shot him in his arm.

Officer: Ma’am, keep your hands where they are!

Reynolds: I will sir, no worries, I will.

Officer: Fuck!

Reynolds: He just got his arm shot off. We got pulled over on Larpenteur.

Officer: I told him not to reach for it! I told him to get his head up!

Reynolds: He had, you told him to get his ID, sir, his driver’s license. Oh my god please don’t tell me he’s dead.

Regardless of whether the killing is ruled legally justified, viewers can’t unsee the image of Castile dying in the driver’s seat. The timeline of his killing will no doubt be hashed and rehashed countless times in the coming days, and mainstream news organizations will report out and contextualize the police officer’s side of the story. But Reynolds’s citizen journalism gave Americans her unvarnished perspective of the aftermath, a crucial angle that would have gone through multiple layers of reporters and editors otherwise.

Facebook, for all the consternation it causes publishers, made possible the real-time transmission of this account to a massive audience. Just a year ago, Americans would likely have to wait hours, if not days or longer, to see such imagery—long enough for law enforcement agencies or police unions to rev up their own PR machines.

Reynolds understood this, maintaining composure as she broadcast live for the masses. After additional officers told her to exit the car to be handcuffed, she informs her audience, “They threw my phone, Facebook.” It’s only then that she breaks down, overcome with grief at the killing to which she bore witness for us all.

 

 

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.