When you can take your selfie stick and zip videos of your protest to Instagram, who needs news photographers? In a world of self-publication, we don't need press anymore. Do we?
That's the question I can't get out of my head after watching videos of protests over racial issues at the University of Missouri last month. Maybe it's because I work at a university and live in a university town.
After the president of Mizzou stepped down Nov. 9, the press swarmed onto the university campus to cover student protests. One of those journalists was a student taking photos for ESPN. A woman affiliated with the university and its journalism department ordered him to leave. She told him he should respect protesting students' right to be left alone. He replied that they had a First Amendment right to express themselves and he had the same right to document it.
The video of that confrontation went viral, at least among those of us in the journalism world, partly because it took place on the campus of one of the top four journalism schools in the country. But I couldn't help wondering what triggered the confrontation.
Generally, the challenge for any protest is to get press. Lots of press is often the mark of a successful protest. That's what I thought, anyway. Why would you not want press?
Censorship on college campuses is a problem. In April 2014, after a Fed Ex truck tragically crashed into a bus carrying high school kids to Spring Preview at Humboldt State University, mid-level administrators at HSU tried to keep student journalists from interviewing prospective students on campus. University employees and student athletes at HSU are routinely told they need permission to talk to the press.
Top down censorship is nothing new. Bottom up censorship — that's different.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, civil rights leaders planned protests they knew would end up violent in order to get the attention of the national press. Martin Luther King knew that, without press coverage, governments and businesses wouldn't end Jim Crow laws and practices. Rosa Parks was strategically chosen as the person to refuse to leave her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, because she was seen as press-acceptable.
It has always been a struggle for popular movements to get press coverage. In the spring of 2004, then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. About 4,000 couples lined up at city hall over the next month. Two friends who stood on that line told me about a reporter from a New York newspaper. He went down the line yelling this question: "Anyone from New York?" It wasn't enough that thousands of gay people would get married for the first time in this country. He needed a local angle to get the story on the front page of his paper.
The coverage San Francisco got that month helped generate national momentum over the next decade that led to the U.S. Supreme Court declaring the ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.
So why would someone at Missouri turn away a photojournalist from arguably the most popular news network in the world? In Missouri you might dislike the New York Times, but who dislikes ESPN?
There is a dangerous myth out there. Because some photos and videos go viral — reaching millions of viewers — we think that any one photo or video can. People think they have the power to generate their own publicity. But take a look at the videos that go viral — CNN has a page just for that. Few are newsy. Most are the equivalent of the skateboarding dog.
It's like the great Lotto myth: Because someone always wins the Lotto, you could. But the reality is that almost any other event in life is more likely to happen than you winning the Lotto.
The protests at the University of Missouri got little attention at first. Because the university was ignoring cries from students to address severe racial problems, student Jonathan Butler started a hunger strike on Nov. 2. But it took the local paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, four days to notice. The national press wouldn't turn its eye until Nov. 8, when 30 players on the university's football team announced they would boycott practices and games. That's why ESPN wanted photos of the protest. Selfies and Twitter and Facebook posts didn't get Butler the attention he needed.
Maybe the myth of virality has created two dangerous trends. The first is the idea that you don't need the press to tell the world your story. The other is the belief of many in the press that a story isn't worth doing unless it has the potential to go viral; that protests by students of color at a major university and a hunger strike by one no-name guy aren't big enough stories to be worth the time, effort and web space to report.
I think there is a reason that our Founding Fathers stuffed so many rights into the First Amendment. They could have given speech, press, religion, petition and assembly their own amendments. I think they realized that the right to petition and assemble to protest government action or inaction has little value if people don't hear about the protests or petitions. There is a reason that dictators try to control or silence the press when they first seize power. Protests can be tolerated if few hear of them.
Videos posted to the Internet can force change when they get the attention of the national and world press. When the First Amendment rights of free press and free assembly coincide, things start to happen. But when people demanding change push away press, they just feed those in power. You can talk truth to power all you want. But if what you say doesn't end up in the news, you might as well be talking to yourself.
Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State.