When protests broke out in Ferguson, Mo. over the shooting of an unarmed Black teenager by a white police officer, journalists took to Twitter and other platforms to tweet and shoot video of these events.
Powerful, moving, and raw, the stream of consciousness produced by the journalists — and citizen journalists, for that matter — stirred arguably a revolution within the United States, challenging police brutality and potentially corrupt practices within policing. For some journalists, coverage of the event led them to develop a strong brand for themselves. One of these journalists is Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery.
Lowery, who started his career at the Boston Globe where he contributed to a Pulitzer Prize-winning team for their coverage of the Boston Marathons, is a new-age journalist. With an innovative mind and quick wit for strategizing breaking news, Lowery’s Twitter profile blew up during his coverage of the protests in Ferguson, growing from about 10,000 to 100,000 followers over the span of several weeks.
One of his actions that perhaps led to such notoriety was his ability to whip out his phone and shoot video as a Ferguson police officer forced him and another journalist to leave a McDonalds, which served as their base for reporting during their visits. Lowery resisted the officer, resulting in his arrest. The Washington Post’s Executive Editor Martin D. Baron said was “wholly unwarranted and an assault on the freedom of the press to cover the news. The physical risk to Wesley himself is obvious and outrageous.”
But what if this video was shot live, and was sent directly to Twitter? When I spoke to Lowery several months after the event, he posed this question himself. As we spoke, platforms like Meerkat and Twitter’s Periscope were just coming to fruition, and, already, Lowery was ready to test this new storytelling technique. (Lowery used Periscope before it launched in its beta phase at the time of our interview.)
“I think what we can realize is how powerful live video can be and how many people will watch it,” Lowery said in the interview.
Digital disruption changes the world of journalism, the way of reporting and the platforms journalists use to tell stories — or, as Lowery says, giving voice to the voiceless. The promise and capability of live stream directly linked to popular social media platforms like Twitter brings a disruption to the already disrupted way of reporting.
Live stream isn’t anything new. But with Meerkat and Periscope, the latter being purchased for $100 million by Twitter quite recently, the ability to connect to the already established platforms like Twitter bring a strong ability to change this landscape.
“They’re going to be very powerful tools,” Lowery said. “Will it change the storytelling game the same way Twitter did? No, it will not. But, it’s another tool to tell the story better: I certainly think so.”
What are these platforms?
The rules of Meerkat are simple. Use your phone to live stream an event and the app will link it directly to Twitter. You can’t play reruns; everything is live. Periscope’s philosophy is similar, with the exception of having the ability to save these streams to your own phone for later use.
Both platforms have the ability to engage with viewers, with “like” buttons and the ability to comment and receive live interaction with the videographer during a certain event. As Meerkat’s policy states, though, the platforms encourage users “be kind” while using these liberal commenting mechanisms.
And Periscope’s mission reflects the ever-growing use of citizen journalism and instant gratification. “What if you could see through the eyes of a protester in Ukraine?” Periscope’s website reads. Their statement continues: “A picture may be worth a thousand words, but live video can take you someplace and show you around.”
These statements have enticed an interested audience. Since hitting the mainstream world of Twitter in February and March, the number of users of these brands have grown significantly. Meerkat launched earlier, and, with the help of SXSW, had its 15 minutes in the spotlight. When Periscope challenged Meerkat, the number of users dropped significantly as Periscope’s audience grew.
As with many social media devices like Twitter and Facebook, Periscope and Meerkat don’t have primarily breaking news-orientated goals. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Kayvon Beykpour, a co-founder of Periscope, said the onset of the newly successful application is due to a culture that promotes the willingness to share personal, perhaps previously private, information with the world.
Beykpour, who developed several apps similar to Periscope with little success, noted this as one of his challenges.
“What’s more challenging is how do you build an experience that allows that to be possible, but also allows you and me to share what we’re doing with our friends and families in such a way that it’s compelling enough for the viewer to open that push [notification] and watch and interact,” Beykpour told WSJ.
However, the personability and vulnerability these platforms create have already been criticized, as anonymous can comment on live streams inappropriate requests of the user — oftentimes asking women to perform some sort of inappropriate, sexual actions.
Will these platforms inhibit the quality of reporting?
Just as any other platform, anyone can use Periscope and Meerkat. Just as teenagers can tweet “#blessed,” so can they live-stream their lives, detailing as little or as much as possible. This new access to the human experience is enticing, as Beykpour alludes to, but isn’t the only goal or use of these mediums.
What I’m interested in is the how these platforms are used for journalists for the purpose of breaking news reporting — especially on protests and social justice movements.
The new digital landscape has already disrupted how journalists do this type of reporting. In the 1960s, while reporting on the march in Selma, Alabama, for example, journalists would take notes, conduct interviews, and phone in their stories to their editors at their respective publications. With the digital age, not only is it the expectation and standard to publish breaking news stories immediately, but journalists must also spread that news across social media with great speed.
For the news industry, Twitter serves as a platform for quick, chronological reporting and competitive breaking news. When Lowery covered the protests in Ferguson in August, he would send tweets and photos with up-to-date information. Though the news wasn’t “breaking,” necessarily, his Twitter feed served as a resource for followers of the protest to access regardless of whether or not there was a story published in the Washington Post about the events already. And Lowery relied on the feeds of other journalists in Ferguson to try to understand the larger picture of the protest outside of his limited view.
Lowery has already used Periscope for several reports on the Walter Scott shooting investigation, including a look at the area of the shooting (as detailed in this infamous video of the incident), as well as a live-stream of a vigil honoring Walter Scott.
While none of this is breaking news, the importance of covering these events is evident, and perhaps best fit for Twitter. But is Periscope the best mechanism for telling these stories?
For Lowery, he finds it incredibly helpful for these kinds of situations.
“It seems like that kind of live video — reporters should be able to do it easily — is, where it would be extremely valuable for situations like events like Ferguson and protests of the matter. It would’ve been very helpful in Boston during things like the Aaron Hernandez trial (for coverage in 2013),” Lowery told me.
Perhaps its the ability to truly provide raw, unedited footage of these events in real time that may draw in viewers, and potential readers for the article published on the event later.
When I asked Boston Globe photojournalist and videographer Dina Rudik for her opinion on these platforms, she told me she didn’t “have enough information” to make a comment. Contrary to my initial belief, it’s possible some of the best photojournalists and videographers don’t know of these platforms. Looking at the screenshot of Lowery’s video above, it’s abundantly clear the live-stream video doesn’t produce in a high quality. For visual journalists like Rudik, who have an eye for impacting and quality visuals, could these live streams ever replace the quality pieces they produce and spend hours editing?
Ben Popper, a reporter at The Verge, noted the phenomenon of live stream in an article detailing his first experience as a viewer of the platform. During the collapse of a building in New York, Popper received a push notification from Periscope about a live-stream of the event through his Twitter app.
“Suddenly I was watching a video of the fire and smoke from a block away. No news media had arrived on the scene,” Popper wrote.
While Popper recognizes the existence of live-stream in these situations before, “this new generation of apps is about to reach a much bigger audience at a much faster pace,” he writes.
And it’s true. For journalists, citizen journalists, and all users, alike, Periscope and Meerkat offer the possibility of on the scene footage linked to an already build audience. But perhaps this kind of reporting and storytelling lacks “real information,” Popper notes.
With tweets, journalists can provide more insight and verified, credible reporting. And this trust is accelerated in published material in media outlets. But the raw footage these mediums provide is intriguing, and for a large audience, it can change the game of storytelling.
A lack of context
Tony Collings, a University of Michigan Communications Studies professor and former reporter for CNN, isn’t sold on the use of Periscope or Meerkat for journalists and non-journalists, alike.
Having done reporting in several foreign countries during conflicts, protests, and potentially dangerous environments in the 1970s and 1980s, Collings found his perspective as a journalist as a key to ensuring the ability to minimize harms for readers, and, for CNN, viewers.
The level of trust in citizen journalists and non-journalists with reporting should be limited, Collings said. Though he said a benefit to these platforms is their ability to provide another source of information to the public, Collings noted it can be difficult to decipher what’s news and what could be a hoax.
“The obvious problem is you’re mixing journalists with non-journalists,” Collings said. “That’s a huge problem because a non-journalist doesn’t necessarily know what’s important, not important…they can’t give you the context.”
Collings, who teaches several courses at the University including “Ethics in Journalism” and “Foreign News Reporting,” said the live-streams can be misleading and ambiguous if used either from a trained journalist or an ordinary citizen. The limited view of an iPhone’s lens does not compare to that of a camera crew from CNN, he added.
“If (an event is) that important, then we would go there with our own camera,” Collings.
Collings’ comments reflect the concerns of Popper, as he was unable to fully understand the context of the New York City building collapse due to the lack of reporting involved in the live stream.
Just like all prominent social media platforms, Periscope and Meerkat cannot simply become the main story telling technique used by journalists. It’s easy for tweets and live streams to lack context. Of course, published pieces of content from credible media outlets should hold more weight than a tweet or live stream of an event. But, with social media and other mechanisms disrupting the news industry, it’s difficult to tell whether or not this disrupting can be good for credibility, accountability, and simply telling the truth for news consumers.
Despite any flaws in Periscope and Meerkat in its design and use by journalists and others, these applications are disrupting the already disrupted world of journalism.
Innovation, it seems, is a permanent fixture as journalism continues to change, and these changes seem to affect breaking news reporting and protest coverage more than ever. These areas are valuable for media outlets, and for prominent journalists, to learn and adapt to.
Though not ideal for traditional journalists and potentially alarming for the credibility of news organizations, the use of Periscope and Meerkat provides another outlet for journalists to do what they should every day. And that’s to give a voice to the voiceless.