What Journalists Can Learn From: Occupiers

(Photo by _PaulS_, via flickr)

Since Sept. 17, the Occupy Movements have been a constant presence in both select cities and the news cycle as media outlets around the world try to make sense of a protest-turned-social movement that has held on for close to 80 days.

In the words of Washington Post scribe Elizabeth Flock:

There is the Occupy shown by the news media, defined by police clashes and a lack of hygiene — images that tell non-Occupiers that the movement is leaderless, chaotic and on its way out. But as the marchers passed through towns large and small, and ordinary Americans came out of their homes and businesses to give food, money and words of support, it became clear that this movement isn’t going away.

While Occupy may not be over, it’s never too early to start checking out the lessons media can take from the movement.

1. Remember the fight for press freedom

A press pass is a powerful thing. It confers access and some level of privilege. Watching my Twitter feeds during some of the OWS actions that ended in police action toward journalists, many were aghast that the police would 1. arrest journos and 2. require press pre-registration (if it is even available) before protests.

The Society for Professional Journalists released a statement with the following requests:

SPJ calls for all charges against these journalists to be dropped and for greater care by police to avoid arresting or otherwise obstructing journalists who are simply and clearly doing their jobs.

In these recent instances, the journalists were either wearing press credentials or explained to police that they were reporters covering the protests. They were clearly exercising the constitutional right of a free press.

Josh Stearns of Free Press created a Storify documenting the photos and live accounts of the arrests, along with some legal guides.

And John Farely of the newly formed Metro Focus wrote about his own arrest and some of the complications facing citizen journalists:

I don’t know precisely why I was arrested, though I have been charged with disorderly conduct. But what I realized is that in a sudden burst of urban chaos, how can the police distinguish between passersby and protesters who may be committing civil disobedience or any other type of punishable offense? Or between citizen journalists and professional journalists?

The arrest of my cell mate, Sam Queary, 24, adds another dimension to the issue: that of the inadvertent, spontaneous citizen journalist. Queary happened to be at work at Grey Dog Cafe near Union Square when the protesters marched by.

“I heard a commotion and went outside to find cops macing women and arresting people and hitting people with nightsticks, so I started taking pictures,” said Queary. “I followed a young, black male as he was being accosted by five cops. As I tried to take a picture I was pushed away. I asked why I was pushed away and then the next thing you know I was being judo flipped.”

Freedom of the press must be actively protected. And journalists should not assume that their press pass will protect them from violence or suppression.

world press freedom map

2. Rethink the idea of narrative

The largest criticism of the Occupy movement has been that there isn’t a coherent narrative. But that’s kind of the point — like most humans, Occupiers want different things out of the movement. A good example of reporting that leaves space for these disagreements is this piece on the break between Occupy Philadelphia and Reasonable Solutions/Occupy Wall Street Philadelphia. While some would point to the differing goals and complicated chain of events as emblematic of the issues with Occupy Everywhere, the piece reviews a chaotic narrative and demystifies it without oversimplfying the major issues.

Another way to look at narrative is examining how stories are told. Much has been made of how homeless folks are finding shelter in Occupy. Some articles focus on the tensions within the camps; others focus on how the homeless are symbols of the battles occupiers are waging against the state of American politics. But few outlets, if any, mention how the Occupy Movement is indebted to resources normally designated for the homeless. If Occupiers are using tactics that homeless people use to survive, and use their shower, food, and shelter resources after the camps were raided and disbanded, it may be time for a new angle.

3. Don’t be afraid to meet new people

Social media is an amazing way to expand your network. But you are only really meeting people a few degrees removed from your standard network. The Occupy Movements managed to attract a strange and disparate group of people due to the strength of their core idea, and attempt to have these people all coexist in the same space long enough to further their goals.

Clearly, some of these folks would normally not be in the same space — homeless veterans sat on park benches next to middle-aged women who looked like they were packing knitting needles. The young anarchist set faced off against baby-faced, clean-scrubbed new grads. They were all in the same space and forced to engage outside of their personal comfort zones. Engaging in random physical spaces helps to create new connections and forge new friendships — and what could be more valuable to reporters than a varied contact list?

4. Create infrastructure

Currently, the Occupy Movements have run afoul of authorities by trying to set up more permanent encampments. To steal a phrase from House Stark, winter is coming — and the Occupiers are looking to shore up their makeshift tent cities into more durable structures. As I write this, Occupy D.C. is battling with the police over a structure they erected in McPherson Square to help transition into colder weather.

Journalism’s infrastructure battles do not lie within the jurisdiction of police — rather, they exist at the boundaries between our imaginations and corporations. The most current manifestation of this debate is happening between Clay Shirky and Dean Starkman, who argue about what infrastructure needs to be built and what it should look like. To sum up Starkman:

At its heart, the FON [Future of News] consensus is anti-institutional. It believes that old institutions must wither to make way for the networked future. “The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the existing society,” Shirky wrote in “Here Comes Everybody,” his 2008 popularization of network theory. “As a result, either the revolutionaries are put down, or some of those institutions are altered, replaced or destroyed.” If this vision of the future does not square with your particular news preferences, well, as they might say on Twitter, #youmaybeSOL. [...] FON thinkers put forward the idea of news as a commodity, describing it variously as abundant, undifferentiated, and of low value. As a consequence, FON thinking assumes, it won’t ever command much of anything in a market where the costs of distribution are basically zero. [...]

I’ll go further and posit as axiomatic that journalism needs its own institutions for the simple reason that it reports on institutions much larger than itself. It was The New York Times and Gretchen Morgenson, followed quickly by Bloomberg’s late Mark Pittman, who first pried loose the truth about the bailout of American International Group: namely, that it was all about Wall Street, led by Goldman Sachs. Those tooth-and-nail battles were far from fair fights — Goldman’s stock-market capitalization is about fifty (that’s “five-oh”) times that of the Times’s parent. Whether it be called The New York Times or the Digital Beagle, we must have organizations with talent, traditions, culture, bureaucrats, geniuses, monomaniacs, lawyers, health plans, marketing divisions, and ad salespeople — and they must have the clout to take on the likes of Goldman Sachs, the White House, and local political bosses. The public needs them, and it will have them.

Clay Shirky launched a rebuttal:

Institutions also reduce the choices a society has to make. In the second half of the 20th century, “the news” was whatever was in the newspaper on the morning, or network TV at night. Advertisers knew where to reach shoppers. Politicians knew who to they had to talk to to get their message out (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not.) Readers understood a Letters page as the obvious way of getting wider circulation for their views. That dual reduction of choices masks an essential asymmetry, though. Institutions are designed to reduce the choices for their members, but they only happen to reduce the choices in society. A publisher may want reporters at their desks at 10 a.m., and to be the main source of breaking news for the paper’s readers. The former desire is under the publisher’s control; the latter not. [...]

The old landscape had institutions and so will the new one, but this doesn’t imply continuity. We still have companies called Western Union and ATT, but as the communications landscape changed, they have become almost unrecognizably different from their former selves. Likewise, as the presses fall silent over the next 10 years, even papers that survive will see their internal organization and place in the ecosystem altered beyond our ability to predict.

While there is legitimate debate to be had around the role of current institutions in journalism, most folks can agree that as you start building projects — be they an Occupy Encampment or a journalism-focused site — immediately, the problems of infrastructre emerge. These tensions are essentially a way to ask the question, “how do we continue this?” — and nothing is more relevant to the future of journalism than that question.


(Occupied Wall Street Journal photo on journalists.org home page by JuntosWorldwide, via flickr)