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There’s a phenomenon called “The Protest Paradigm.” It’s how news coverage of protests can actually reinforce the status quo by emphasizing the disruption of protests while trivializing the needs of the protesters. These narratives harm the most vulnerable.
The Beacon hosted an open community conversation to provide an inside look into decisions our newsroom is making in real time about covering protests around police brutality. Celisa Calacal, The Beacon’s assistant editor and a reporter at local protests, and Kelsey Ryan, The Beacon’s editor and founder, responded to questions our readers sent in and asked during the live chat.
The conversation, led by reporter Brittany Callan, addressed criticisms of how local media frames unrest, the ethics of covering protests and editing protest stories, and reader concerns about newsroom diversity and equity awareness.
The following is a transcript of the conversation. It has been edited for length and clarity. You can also watch a recording of the conversation here.
What examples of media distrust have you seen during this time?
Calacal: There were a lot of people at the protests that just didn’t want to speak to the media and it was something that I was cognizant of before I went. I kind of knew that some people wouldn’t want to talk to the media because of distrust, stemming from they feel like their communities haven’t been covered properly. They feel like a lot of times the media only comes in to talk about black and brown communities when it’s about crime or it’s about a tragedy so I kind of knew that going in. So there were some people who didn’t want to talk, that didn’t feel comfortable, so when that happens, you just say, “OK, thank you for your time.”
Tell me about an ethical issue you grappled with as a newsroom while covering Kansas City protests?
Ryan: With every single aspect of this particular story, we asked questions. Of course, you do these things anyway, but extra care was given because we knew how sensitive of a topic this is and how important of a topic it is. There was just a lot of line-by-line editing that went through it.
And also, just the ethical issues, particularly in collecting photographs and making sure that the photography that we put out was representative of the protests as a whole and not just a singular event during the protests. So that was something that we took extra care in wanting to make sure that we weren’t misrepresenting the vast majority of the day with a single lead image that didn’t represent most of what occured.
Calacal: We wanted to provide a really holistic, contextualized look at what happened at the protests so we did take a lot of care in the writing. You know, where was active voice used, where was passive voice used, that was something we were really cognizant of.
What are some ways you are working to gain trust of the community through your reporting on police brutality protests?
Ryan: This webinar is part of that! To make sure that we’re answering questions from our audience and to be transparent about our processes. We want to be radically transparent about our processes as journalists and hopefully provide that level of context for you so that you can be a more savvy media listener or reader or whatever, as well.
Calacal: Another way, too, that we’re trying to gain trust in our own stories is making sure that we have that proper context for all of the issues that we’re talking about. That’s why in our protest story, there’s a graf or two about J.C. Nichols and his legacy or history as a developer in Kansas City. It’s why we had a paragraph about the black men the KCPD have killed over the years. Because we think it’s important not just to tell people what’s happening, but to tell how we got there, why it’s happening and what’s the broader context surrounding the issues that we’re reporting on.
Can you talk about the images that you selected to include in the story? How do you ensure that the images you use of protesters are being used ethically?
Ryan: One of the things we do is make sure that members of the media identify themselves and make it clear that this is for publication. We talked this through with photographers to make sure that when they took close up photos, that they had talked to them and got their name. That’s pretty standard procedure for journalists but this was a good reminder to be on the ball with that.
We wanted to make sure that from the photography perspective, we took a really documentarian approach so making sure that, although there were images of broken windows, we didn’t think leading with that was the ethical thing to do because it wasn’t representative of what happened as a whole.
What precautions do reporters take for their own health while reporting on a protest, given that we’re in a pandemic?
Calacal: I made sure I wore my mask the whole time. I made sure I had hand sanitizer on me. I made sure not to touch people when I was out reporting. In general, it was really hot that weekend and it’s getting hotter so staying hydrating is super important. A lot of times when reporters cover these protests, they’re out there for a long time, as are the people protesting.
I’m monitoring my symptoms, making sure that I’m feeling OK and if I decide to go back out there to do more on the ground reporting, I’ll make sure that I’m feeling OK and I’ll continue to wear a mask.
How do editors decide how to assign people to cover protests?
Ryan: Given that we’re in a pandemic, it was voluntary. I didn’t want to put anyone in a position where they were uncomfortable and made it clear that if they weren’t comfortable at any point, they don’t have to stay. The reporter’s and photographers’ safety was my utmost concern.
With regular beat reporting, over time, as we grow as an organization, certain reporters will take certain topics and make them their own and it naturally shows who will cover what topics. So, it’s kind of different from what people think of as “traditional media” where you have an editor who assigns things. We have a much more collaborative approach as a staff.
The Beacon’s protest story includes a section on some solutions for solving police violence in Kansas City. Can you talk about why you decided to report on potential solutions?
Ryan: It’s really not constructive to just write about day-to-day happenings. The reason The Beacon exists is to provide more in-depth coverage. We want to get beyond the “he said/she said,” we want to get beyond the 24-hour breaking news cycle. So, how do you, in journalism terms, move the story forward? Or look forward? And that is through a solutions journalism lens. So, not wanting to focus solely on the problems but also what the community is trying to do about those problems is an incredibly important lens to look at this through.
What is The Beacon staff doing to address their own racial biases and to include black journalists?
Ryan: This is something that’s really personal for every human because we’re all in a different place. With our last story, we shared a bibliography of anti-racist resources. It was really cool as a newsroom for all of us to put in different resources — books, movies, essays, podcasts and things like that — as kind of a starting point. It kind of gets into the solutions angle. You can’t just talk about solutions, you have to implement them in your own life. It’s a really good starting point for us as a staff and an opportunity so we have a place to start for action in your own life. That’s something that we wanted to provide for not only our staff but for readers.
Like I mentioned, we’re a brand new organization here in Kansas City. This is something that, from inception, we’ve really wanted to focus on: the diversity of voices. Some of the stuff that I’ve been doing internally is that for every position that we hire, we make sure that there’s at least one applicant of color, which, believe it or not, a lot of news organizations don’t do that. And also proactively going out to seek diverse talent so we are evolving that over time.
What are your thoughts on ongoing newsroom discussions at the national level regarding notions of objectivity as the “norm” versus the idea that journalism requires truth and moral standing?
Ryan: That’s a big question and it’s one that journalists across the country are grappling with right now. As a newsroom, we’re talking more in-depth about our ethics and where we stand, so that’s in development. But I totally agree that there needs to be a change in the way a lot of journalism outlets approach coverage, particularly with communities of color. Basically, making sure that, like Celisa mentioned earlier, everyone is part of these stories and not just when there is a crime story or a tragedy or something, but holistic coverage of the community.
And part of that, too, is an issue within journalism itself being whitewashed, to be quite honest, and making sure that we make room in newsrooms and hire people and not only just tell stories of communities of color but also have them represented in our newsrooms, which is something that’s historically not been great in the United States. There’s a lot of big questions and we don’t have all the answers by any means, and it’s something that should be causing a lot of introspection right now among organizations.
Calacal: Most newsrooms in America are predominantly white and that’s a huge problem that’s being highlighted right now when you have protests that touch on police violence and involve racial justice. When you don’t have reporters in your newsroom that look like your community, how is your community supposed to trust you? A big part of being a local news organization is developing those relationships and if you don’t have journalists of color working for you, it makes it harder to gain that trust.
And notions of objectivity a lot of the time are wielded against journalists of color who do speak out on social media, whether it’s about issues like racism or justice or any issues that intimately impacts them. So I think a reckoning of the journalism industry is what’s happening now and I think it’s long overdue and needs to happen.
What guidance do you get from your news managers as you prepare to cover a protest?
Calacal: In general, safety tips for journalists, guides that other journalism organizations have created about how to safely cover a protest as a journalist, also, my first amendment rights as a reporter at these protests. Those are some resources that really helped me in preparing to go out and report on what was going on.
Have we considered any racial equity training as a staff?
Ryan: So REI, which is the Racial Equity Institute, Jennifer Hack Wolf went through it and I was signed up before the pandemic happened but it got delayed. So that is something that is on our radar and we’d like to get the rest of our staff through. That is our plan.
And like everywhere else, we have a lot of policies internally about discrimination and harrassment. We also have every reporter, freelancer and photographer sign the SPJ code of ethics. That is something that’s really important to us.
I’m hoping that REI will turn it into an online program if it can’t be done sooner because of the pandemic.
How do you decide your framing? Meaning, how do you decide the language you use to describe the events you are covering?
Ryan: So, I mentioned this earlier, the use of active voice instead of passive voice is really important. There have been some other things that, if you’re a word nerd, there are things you can notice in other media and to kind of flag in your own mind. So that’s the active voice and passive voice.
Also, just being really aware of the verbiage that’s used. So for example, one word that is being used a lot to describe what happened in Minneapolis is the word “kneeling.” And that’s a really passive word and also, it implies a peaceful action, which was not what occurred when George Floyd was killed. So that is something that we’re not using. We would rather use more descriptive language of what occurred than the word kneeling. It also can, for some people, have a weird conflation with Colin Kaepernick and his protesting and you want to avoid any potential confusion there.
You also want to be hyperaware of using the words “accused, alleged and convicted,” “death versus killing versus murder” are all very important legal terms to be aware of and also I’d say not painting in broad strokes that all protesters are looters or rioters or things like that.
It’s better to be specific and accurate than to use more vague broad language. You’ll notice in a lot of media right now that there’s a lot of passive voice.
Calacal: One thing that I’ve also noticed in my own consumption of how other news organizations have described protests is that they use a lot of war language like “clash” and “tensions” and that’s something that we also wanted to avoid, just to stay to the point, to say “this is what happened” and not to conflate anything or to traffic in some of these narratives that a lot of news organizations have been falling into in recent weeks.
What are follow up steps to reduce the likelihood of violence? New laws/regulations for police? Who is working to make that happen?
Ryan: That’s part of what our ongoing coverage is hoping to answer. We’re wanting to really look into some of the solutions that are being presented by the community and to look at how those play out.
We’re starting to see some possible comparisons with other cities and other states to see what their solutions might be so that provides a really good bouncing off point for future stories, to say, “OK, this is what this city is implementing,” “What are people here looking at doing as well?” And so that’s kind of that solutions framework that we want to explore in our future coverage.