Is Social Media the Only Truly Free Press?


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It's easy to forget what an important role social media plays in the media at large. When you're busy taking BuzzFeed quizzes on Facebook or sharing pictures of your cat on Instagram, it's hard to see these tools as anything but hives of narcissism. But as I write this column at the end of a long week filled with bad news, I can't help but think of social media as not only the best source for breaking news, but as the only truly free press left.

As I went to bed the night before I sat down to write this, I saw reports that journalists Ryan Reilly and Wesley Lowery had been arrested for ... well ... no one really knows. Basically, they had the nerve to be journalists covering the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., after the police there shot unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. This should terrify you and conjure images of Russian gulags and Chinese dissidents--because this is not how things are supposed to be done in the United States of America. Our constitution guarantees a free press. The reporters-who worked for The Huffington Post and The Washington Post, respectively--were released from custody fairly quickly, thanks to public outcry. That outcry would not have existed-at least not immediately--if the reporters had not basically live tweeted their own arrests.

The press at large has been mostly kept out of Ferguson (at least up until now)--one station even ran video of what looked like police lobbing tear gas at an Al Jazeera news crew while it set up--and so many of the pictures and videos we saw from the inside came from people on the ground grabbing a snapshot with their smartphones and quickly uploading it. MSNBC had to use livestreams from other sources because the outlet had been shut out of the area.

If you wanted the most up-to-date news about Ferguson, reddit had you covered. It aggregated tweets, Vine videos, live feeds, and just about anything that was relevant to make a one-stop shop for Ferguson information. Police told the press no protesters were injured, but on reddit you could see pictures of protesters flashing bruises and wounds caused by rubber bullets.

The morning after most of this went down, The New York Times drew ire from many people. A post in BackTalk, filed under "criminally negligent journalism," called out the newspaper for running a front page story with the headline, "Anonymity in Police Shooting Fuels Frustration." While not untrue, the headline hardly told the story of what was really happening in Ferguson, which was that the police force-looking more and more similar to the military-used violent (but nonlethal) force on mostly nonviolent protestors. The Huffington Post, on the other hand, had a huge headline on its main page proclaiming Ferguson "Baghdad USA" and included a picture of the shock-and-awe of a tear gas canister being deployed.

Meanwhile, Anonymous (an activist watchdog group) said it had uncovered the name of the officer who had shot and killed Michael Brown. The St. Louis County police said the name Anonymous released was not only wrong, but it wasn't even the name of an officer with either the St. Louis or Ferguson police.

Yes, the news came fast and furious. Sure, it can be hard to know exactly what to make of the tweets and videos when you have no context. But the context comes later. In cases such as these, the NPRs and New York Times of the world come in after the fact, creating long-form content around the on-the-ground reports coming from inside the chaos.

Presenting a balanced, well-researched portrait of a situation is still incredibly important. It's what we need our major news organizations to do. And many of those organizations understand the importance of social media at every stage of the publishing process-from research to distribution. But it's no longer about new media versus old media. These days it's about the people with press passes versus citizen journalists-the people who have reputations to uphold and standards to follow and the people who are just documenting what they see and putting it out there for the world to make sense of. Luckily, there's room for both.

However, when it comes to on-the-ground reporting, I'm afraid the citizen journalists are always going to win. The powers that be might be able to hunt down reporters and throw them in a cell, no matter how briefly, but they cannot arrest everyone with a smartphone and Twitter account.