How much violence do we need to see – or report?

A man throws a brick at police Monday, April 27, 2015, following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

A man throws a brick at police Monday, April 27, 2015, following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

A tangle of violence and protest has engulfed parts of Baltimore and cannot be ignored by the news media.  But how much reporting should be done, and when should it be done, and reports of what?

Those questions and more swirl, even as smoke still billows over Baltimore amid appeals for calm from the family of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old man who suffered a spinal cord injury after being arrested by city police.

The protests — and violence — in Baltimore over Gray’s death have roots in dissatisfaction, disgust and decades of confrontation between police and citizens. In some cases, demonstrators with arms linked and signs calling for justice, were marching — as the First Amendment provides, assembling peaceably to petition for change — even as others threw bottles and looted stores.

As officials Monday announced the presence of National Guard troops and a nightly curfew, some city officials were critical of the news media for what they said was a focus on violent “thugs” rather than images and reports about those conducting the peaceful protests.

Others said journalists had misreported a comment by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake about authorities giving protesters room and protection to exercise their First Amendment rights — and that rioters also benefited from such “space.” Some online sites and news operations said her comments directly, or in effect, signaled a free pass for violent actions.

And in yet another layer of complexity to the story and the reporting, at least eight journalists became unwilling news subjects. As in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere where protests have involved some violence, reporters in Baltimore were victims of mob attacks, hit with bottles or rocks, or in a few cases, were caught up in police actions and sprayed with mace or knocked to the ground and bloodied.

What images to show? How often? What’s the right focus? Should the injuries to reporters get much attention compared to time, space and effort in reporting on the peaceful protests or the violent actions? And should journalists even “go live” or do instant online reporting during violent outbreaks?

Andrew Seaman, chairman of the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, posted a timely blog April 28, reminding journalists to take care in covering violent situations, as well as their obligations in doing such reporting. “Once again, a large U.S. city is being thrust into the national spotlight as people destroy neighborhoods in the wake of a person’s death. … Journalists should understand that they must take care of themselves when covering unpredictable situations, like street protests.”

Seaman noted that “a press pass by itself is no protection against the probability of being caught in a barrage of rocks, police batons, gunfire, shrapnel or drifts of tear gas,” but also that “a rapidly evolving and unstable situation is no excuse for carelessness in reporting. While text, images and audio pour into a newsroom, it’s crucial that journalists continue to act as gatekeepers to serve the public good.”

Later, in an afternoon interview, Seaman said even the new challenge of social media — where citizen videos and personal accounts may zoom instantly into the blogisphere — should not shape coverage.

“I hope people don’t get into the idea that their competitor is Twitter,” he said. “Journalists have a more noble mission than that,” to present information that is verified and in context.

“Neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy,” Seaman said, noting that “at the end of the day,” readers and viewers, who may have followed events through social media, will turn to journalists for accurate, complete reports.

As for social media posts and online reporting, the posts range from graphic photos of violence, to serious discussions on issues raised by Gray’s death and other similar deaths of people in police custody, to outright racist and inflammatory exchanges.

A discussion thread on Reddit carried comments on the state of media coverage in Baltimore. A sampling:  “90% of the coverage on 10% of the people (who also just happen to be the ones rioting)”; to “ a 10,000-strong protest about a real or perceived social injustice shouldn’t be ignored;  when you make every protest out to seem like everyone is rioting, people stop caring about the subject of the original protest”; to “the news media didn’t come out this weekend to cover me mowing the lawn, but they most certainly would cover me if I went out and ran over a crosswalk full of school children.”

A Facebook posting reportedly from a Baltimore civic activitist made this plea to journalists:  “Please don’t allow a few angry protesters shift the focus of what created this movement in the city.  … Rioting and looting is only a reaction to compounded injustice. The larger issue here is police brutality. Stay focused.”

Clearly, we need to know what is happening in Baltimore — or in Ferguson or in Charleston, S.C., where a black man was gunned down as he ran from a police officer — in the most accurate and immediate way.  And that accounting, at least in the proverbial “first draft of history,” should come from a news media that we know is making decisions and reporting the news free from government control or pressure.

As SPJ’s Seaman said in the interview, the purpose of a free press is to bring the rest of us the news and information we need to govern ourselves. In Baltimore, that may be what citizens need to evaluate the city’s police and civic leadership, at the moment and in the long term. For the nation, that may be the news and information a society needs to better ensure the safety, fair treatment, and means and methods of justice, for all.

The news media’s collective “first draft of history” almost certainly will be incomplete, with differences based on perspective, access, and even format and medium of reporting.  For individual journalists, the job may well mean enduring violence aimed at you and fellow reporters, but not allowing those instances to warp news judgment and the context of your reporting.

But despite the danger reporters need to be on the scene on behalf of us all, for an independent view by those with a goal of accuracy and fairness and credible news.

In the end, as Seaman said, “You can only do good if you are there to do it.”

Related Podcasts

Journalism/Works: Reporting on violence – in Baltimore and elsewhere
Is it “journalism” or just “marketing” for journalists to give instant reports from the scene of riots and chaos? Amidst rioting in Baltimore following the funeral of Freddie Gray, an insightful discussion with Professor John Watson from American University School of Communication explores how journalists should report on violent confrontations and social protests. What lessons about such coverage have been learned – or ignored – from situations as recent as Ferguson, Mo., and as distant as 1960s urban violence during the Civil Rights era?

Journalism/Works: The importance of “context” in reporting on violence
Carl Sessions Stepp, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Phillip Merrill College of Journalism,  discusses  media coverage of the violence and peaceful demonstrations for social justice in Baltimore, and shares his thoughts on how journalists should prepare in advance for such assignments. The former newspaper reporter and editor has been a consultant for news organizations around the country. He specializes in writing and editing, journalism history, and newsroom organization and change. He has written two books, “Writing as Craft and Magic ” and “Editing for Today’s Newsroom,” and is senior contributing editor of American Journalism Review.

Journalism/Works: Lessons from Ferguson: Truth as a ‘tool to improve our democracy’
Tony Messenger, editorial page editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist for editorial writing, talks about what his newspaper and the rest of the news media can take away from news coverage last August of the death of Michael Brown and subsequent protests and violence in Ferguson, Mo., and the reporting of recent protests and violence after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

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