It sounds a full-time job, and then some.
“Pretty much all my time is dedicated to this,” one of the reporters behind the NYC Protest Updates 2020 (@protest_nyc) Twitter account told The Daily Beast. “I wake up and open my laptop. If I’m on the streets that day, I eat and then fall asleep as soon as I get home. If I’m not, I’m on the scanner, doing research or organizing logistics pretty much all day.”
Since its creation last week, over 11,000 people have followed NYC Protest Updates for fast, on-the-ground reporting conducted by self-described “young, independent journalists.”
These reporters, who requested to remain anonymous to protect their jobs and safety, face no shortage of competition from mainstream and local media. But the group’s fast, accurate tweets have become a trusted source for protesters and larger outlets alike.
Two professional reporters began the account. One is a man recently laid off from a Brooklyn paper due to coronavirus-related cuts and another is a woman currently employed by local television news in New York. They are both in their early to mid-twenties and rely on a network of volunteers. One of the volunteers has freelanced for print publications, but the rest are, in the organizers’ words, “amateurs.”
“[They] have blown us away with the quality of their reporting,” the male journalist said over a direct message. “They send their information, pictures, and videos to us for editorial oversight.” Around 10 reporters cover the protests on-the-ground and 20 more monitor police scanners. A public relations professional has volunteered to promote the account.
One of the group’s leaders said that he has been “obsessively following” coverage of Minneapolis protests since May 26, the day after George Floyd’s death.
“I noticed national news sources barely covered the story until the [police] precinct was burned down,” he said. “Local papers had some good coverage, but the best stuff was coming from individual local reporters.” He especially looked for updates from Unicorn Riot, the non-profit media collective based in Minnesota that has hosted hour-long live streams from Minneapolis.
“After the first night of protests in New York, I decided if it reached a certain level of intensity I needed to cover it, even if I was unemployed,” he said. “That night protesters torched a cop car.”
Both the male reporter and female reporter worked together sending out messages to other trusted journalists and friends of friends who they thought might be interested in covering the Black Lives Matter protests. Their mission: provide the public critical updates “to the best of our ability, untethered by mainstream media relations.” A day later, NYC Protest Updates 2020 hit the streets.
The group’s direct messages are open for tips from anonymous amateurs, though the majority of news comes from people within its organization. “We always encourage people to send us footage of the protests, vigils, cleanups, or other [Black Lives Matter]-related events they are attending,” the female journalist said. (Though some of the reporters know BLM organizers, they are not affiliated with them.)
The male reporter describes the Twitter page as “part news source, part resource” for those attending demonstrations.
“We only report facts and our reporting is thorough and accurate, though we aren’t concerned with seeming ‘balanced,’ whatever that means in today’s world,” he said. “We are obviously sympathetic to these protests and view the cops and state as violent and repressive. I think to portray anything but that reality would contradict what we’re seeing on the ground and would be an abdication of our responsibilities as journalists.”
“For me, journalistic objectivity is about a commitment to reporting facts accurately without editorializing, but with the context necessary to understand them,” the male reporter added. “I've seen many reporters leave out that context for fear of seeming biased. To attempt to avoid being seen as ideological in order to preserve some mythical and impossible standard of capital-T, capital-O True Objectivity is a lie and a disservice to your readers.”
He believes that “terms like objectivity, fairness and bias are often used to launder news that is political into being considered apolitical. I would like to see more consumers of news question if ‘objective’ news sources are actually objective or if they just uphold the political status quo. A status quo that allows police officers to murder black people with impunity, is destroying the environment, protects the rich at the expense of the poor, etcetera.”
Information includes not just moment-by-moment briefs on what is happening in New York, but graphics spreading “protest tips” that detail “what to expect if you’re arrested” (cramped quarters, 2-10 hours in custody, denied access to food, water, and medicine) and “what’s the best way to wash pepper spray out of your eyes” (mix one tablespoon baby shampoo with a cup of water, spray or pour it over area). The team considers disseminating this information “a form of protest.”
“Just as having the latest medical news should make you a better doctor, having the latest protest news should make you a better protestor,” the male reporter said. “The printing of advice on how to handle pepper spray for example is an acknowledgement of that role.”
The female journalist added that during the pandemic, news outlets pivoted to delivering their audience crucial health updates and resources. “We do the same with our pepper spray and tear gas infographs, we just have a different audience,” she said.
Though the female reporter currently does not have a police beat, she has in the past. “I’ve interviewed them like any other source,” she explained. “That being said, I’ve found that journalistic objectivity is something held on a pedestal in J-school but often time and time again [is] ignored in broadcast in favor of ratings and narrative. I have seen fantastic producers punished for attempting to create more balanced or thoughtful pieces. I’m not saying that objectivity can’t be pursued, but that its likelihood in the current news market is different than what is sold and packaged as a philosophy.”
A few of the network’s journalists are credentialed with press passes, the female reporter said, but “others are out there with no experience.”
“In a country where journalists are specifically targeted by the police in order to limit information, reporting is an act of protest,” the male organizer said, adding, “If you’re asking if we participate in the chants [at marches], the answer is yes.”
“Our reporters do their best to avoid violence and arrest, but that’s not always easy,” she said. “Our reporters have been pushed, shoved, pepper sprayed, and at times beaten by NYPD officers. One reporter was threatened by a white shirt to have his press credentials revoked for reporting after curfew (a curfew which does not apply to journalists)...But this is an auxiliary issue, and we’re not writing about it to defer from the movement. The real issue is the continued widespread systemic injustice against the Black community, and the abuse they face at the hands of militarized police forces.”
The organizers put together a group chat providing emotional support to their correspondence and encourage their volunteers to take days off when needed, though one of the leaders said he’s yet to take one for himself.
“I actually commit more time to this project than [to] my job,” the female reporter said. “Fortunately, I’ve been finding ways to balance them both despite the heavy workload. Our team is very supportive of everyone’s needs and feelings. Their love, passion, and commitment help drive me, and sometimes make me feel as though I can give endlessly.” She estimates her hours are around 7 am to 1 am, and she also hasn’t taken a day off.
“The DMs [we receive] have felt especially pressing as our account grows, because people will reach out to us overnight asking for help finding their arrested loved ones, or where they can find legal aid. These are very serious and obviously time-sensitive concerns,” she added.
The fast pace of the protests matches the immediacy of Twitter. “A lot of news sources are doing great work, but their model is too clunky and slow to cover these protests effectively,” the male reporter said. “Traditional news sources are slow. . .Outside of our own work, the best coverage I’ve seen in New York comes from individual reporters on the ground live tweeting. That’s pretty much what we do, except we have a large team combining our resources for more holistic coverage.”
The group’s leaders have some critiques for traditional outlets. “Some news sources act as a mouthpiece for the police, printing propaganda from an organization that has repeatedly been shown to lie,” the male reporter added. “If one of my sources lied as frequently as the police do, I would drop the source. Some reporters are acting inappropriately or lazily in their coverage, refusing to find good sources like organizers and instead just grabbing any protester off the street to answer for the whole movement.”
US Protests: New & Updates (@USAProtests) found an audience of over 21,000 followers in the past week; the page is manned by three journalism students between the ages of 18 and 21. Two of them are native New Yorkers who were studying abroad but came home during the pandemic; one is European. They work from home, and do not attend demonstrations themselves in the name of social distancing.
“We’re getting a huge amount of help from freelance journalists and protesters across the country who are helping to keep us updated on the latest developments in their respective city,” one of the group’s organizers wrote over a direct message. “We work to ensure that the tips are accurate and corroborated with picture or video evidence before posting about anything.”
The group was created last week, when its organizers realized there was “a notable absence in the mainstream media of a single place where people could find up-to-date, accurate live reporting on protests around the country.” Like NYC Protest Updates 2020, this group is not affiliated with Black Lives Matter but works with its organizers to provide a daily schedule of events.
“We’re hopeful that we’re contributing to the Black Lives Matter movement in our own way through this account,” one organizer wrote over a direct message. “We’re journalism students but not credentialed. We feel as though this project is a great start in the sense that it provides a good outlook on what future journalism careers might look like.”
The leader clarified that they do not classify their account as “work” because “it’s entirely voluntary.”
“The main challenge is that there are just so many protests taking place at the same time,” they added. “As soon as the ones on the east coast are wrapping up, the ones on the west coast are only kicking off. There’s been a lot of sleepless nights the past week trying to keep up on all the developments nationwide, but we’re doing our best.”
Local news tends to be “a step ahead” from national outlets, the organizer said, so they rely on it for tips. “When we see something big start to unfold on local media, we work to corroborate the story and get it out there to our audience as soon as possible,” they said.
“The mainstream media has taken a persistent interest in focusing their reporting on looting and rioting while simultaneously ignoring dozens upon dozens of peaceful protests nationwide,” the organizer added. “It’s clear that those causing violence are a tiny minority of the millions of people across the country... It’s of course important that instances of violence, looting, and rioting are reported on, but mainstream news organizations seem to amplify the violent minority over the peaceful majority.”
That is partly why the group describes the tone of their reporting as “largely positive. . .most of our coverage is of peaceful protests.” They do not shy away from posting images of police brutality. “It’s incredibly important that these incidents are reported on and that the offices responsible are punished to the fullest extent of the law,” they said.
Both @nyc_protest and @USAProtests are unsure of their future. How long will they stick around? “We sincerely hope that this is a short-term project, and that widespread and effective progressive reform or abolition comes as a result of these protests,” the female @nyc_protest reporter said. “People are demanding their voices be heard—we are waiting and watching to see if politicians are listening.”