Many of our students here at Columbia Journalism School have spent the week reporting the Occupy Wall Street protests. They documented the clearance of Zuccotti Park and the subsequent protests with a diligence, persistence and quality of reporting which was a credit to them and the J School. There were many professional news organisations, freelance journalists, students, bloggers and others covering the dispersal of the peaceful protests. There was also an alarming level of restriction placed on those reporters, and a number of arrests. The threat to journalists of restraint and detention whilst reporting public interest stories in New York City is extremely troubling. Here is an open letter to Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly signed by an number of faculty at the Columbia Journalism School documenting our concerns. For those following this story Josh Stearns of Free Press has being doing an excellent job of documenting all journalist arrests at Occupy protests.
I am sure the public editor of the New York Times will be thrilled to know that Monday is ‘free advice day’, so he is in luck with the question he posed this week in his column: Occupy Wall Street: How Should It Be Covered Now? . The piece includes some great advice from the men who were asked, and some even more good advice in the comments section, from the wider audience. But, as it’s free advice day I thought it would be wrong to pass up the opportunity.
Occupy Wall Street is the perfect framework for understanding what is happening to news dissemination in an internet age. If there is a journalist or journalism student left in New York who has not yet been down to Zuccotti Park, they should feel uncomfortably ashamed. The park itself has become a striking metaphor for the internet; it is a space which is privately controlled but to which the public have access, giving the impression of freedom of association without the assurance of continuity.
It is also a story with some complexity, a nebulousness some find irritating, and others find refreshingly nuanced. It is also an overwhelmingly visual story. Go to the Park, read the signs. Here is a post from academic Dr Alison Trope at USC Annenberg on exactly this subject. It is a theme which is as relevant to news reporting as it is to political and media theory.
The movement itself bamboozled the mainstream media and government with what was perceived as a lack of purpose. ‘They don’t know what they want’ being the generic complaint from mainstream outlets such as CNN. Again, if you visit the square, and read the dozens and dozens of signs it is clear what the complaints are, but they are not expressed in a way which is readily interpreted by packaged media. For those of us who attended plenty of student marches in the 1980s, the mass-produced signs, run off in a student union or by a fringe political organisation, bore one short message with a simple solution; ‘Coal Not Dole’, ‘Ban the Bomb’, ‘Thatcher Out’, ‘Rock Against Racism’. These messages were created, knowingly or subconsciously, with the medium in mind. One minute on the evening news and one shot in the newspaper, the unitary message is vital, but in the world of the real time social web it is over too soon, it lacks the conversational tone necessary for engagement of audiences. At last year’s good humoured but largely ineffectual Rally for Sanity, the signs were the principal output of the movement, grabbing the coat tails of the rise in photo sharing through easy to use tools like Facebook, Twitpic, Yfrog and flickr.