Citizen Journalism: When Black Lives Matter and Cellphone Videos Expose Police Brutality

Lately, cellphone videos have been to black Americans a lifebuoy they draw out whenever an encounter with police occurs. The recordings serve not only as proof, but seem to be the torch of a protest carried by a new generation of black Americans who decide to take action against police violence, against discrimination. It’s citizen journalism at its best.

A rally against police violence at San Francisco in July 2016 – (Pax Ahimsa Gethen image – Wikimedia Commons)

As I was watching “Lois and Clark“, a 1993 DC Comics TV series (I know I am kind of old-fashioned), the power of newspapers that was present in the show made me realize how much things have changed in the journalism world.

The TV series feature a romance between Lois and Clark while the pair is working as partners at the Daily Planet to investigate and expose criminals, giving Superman the free time to leave the newsroom inconspicuous and save the day.

The show portrays an era when people depended on newspapers for news. A time when a degree in journalism was required to report the news. However, the advent of the Internet and social media has changed all that, dragging newspaper outlets to their darkest time ever.

To survive in a competitive market newspapers, radio stations, and TV channels alike created company websites and social media accounts to publish the news and share it with their audience, giving their followers the chance to share their opinions in the comment sections.

In this new technological age journalistic norms have been reinvented, leading to a new shift of responsibilities. Journalists have learned to share news reporting with their audience, even better they have learned to partner with the audience in collecting and disseminating the news.

Thus, we have today the phenomenon dubbed as “citizen journalism” or “citizen media”, which according to the Oxford Dictionary means: “The collection, dissemination, and analysis of news and information by the general public, especially by means of the Internet”.

Citizen media to the rescue of marginalized groups

On July 5, 2016, Alton Sterling, a young black man was shot and killed by police in front of a Baton Rouge store where the victim was selling CDs. Later on, two cellphone videos of the shooting were released, sparking widespread indignation and questions  concerning whether illegal forces were involved in the shooting.

The Day after, on July 6, 2016, another young black manPhilando Castile, was also shot by police during a traffic stop in  Falcon Heights, Minnesota. A live streaming Facebook video of the aftermath of the shooting by the victim’s fianceeLavish Reynolds, also triggered widespread ire.

Aside from police shootings and video recordings, what do these two incidents have in common?

Citizen journalism also called citizen media. However, in these cases I would refer to a new politically engaged occurrence.

Citizen media early days can be retraced to the year 2000s. One of the biggest advents has been the Arab spring back in 2009 where citizens of countries such as Iran, Egypt, Libya, or Tunisia took over social media to share the situations in their countries and gather understanding towards their protests.

Through tweets, Facebook messages, and video cellphones these citizens have out-scooped traditional news media by conveying the news in their own way and share it as it was happening with the whole world or at least anyone with a social media account and a connection to Internet. Suddenly, the Middle East and western countries were connected like never before and created what can be seen as an Engaged Citizen Media.

Now this form of politically engaged citizen media has been adopted within the US to shine a light on what is considered as police brutality and illegal arrests and killings of people by US police officers. Marginalized groups, particularly Black people have gone on a quest to filming police arrests in an attempt to provide police accountability in what they often believe to be illegal arrests or shootings.

Thanks to citizen videos several arrests and police shootings made it to the news and were shared thousands of time on social media, creating indignation and forcing police departments and other elected authorities to take actions. This new shift in citizen journalism has brought a politically engaged side different from everything seen before.

Is this politically engaged citizen journalism the cry of a marginalized group of people in their own country? Could it represent an effort of black American to be heard, or to say No to a situation that has been going on for too long?

The role played by citizen media in police accountability 

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Citizen journalism has played an important role in police accountability lately. Law enforcement officers are now required to wear body cams since August 2014. In many cases, police districts feel the need to offer explanations of shootings, especially when shootings generate indignation and create hashtags such as #PhilandoCastile or #AltonSterling.

– In the aftermath of the shooting of Philando Castile the video has generated lots of emotions, have been shared more than 300 000 times in Facebook, and have been all over the internet. This uproar compelled government leaders to provide responses. As such, the Governor of Minnesota and the President Barack Obama have spoken against police brutality. Issues of racial profiling were also raised as an ongoing investigation is underway.

– Following Alton Sterling‘s death expressions of angers and disbelief have arisen among the US population, particularly among black people. The two videos have spread sympathies for the victim and the Black Lives Matter group has called on protests across the country, with one in Dallas over the recent police shootings that unfortunately ended up in deaths of police officers by a lone sniper shooter.

It is not clear how the US politically engaged citizen journalism will contribute in finding solutions concerning the issues of police brutality. It is not clear either if these videos will make a difference in profiling or other police behaviour that are roots of shootings.

However, as we have seen with recent occurrences, citizen media namely videos of shootings is at its peak. For instance, Charles Kinsey, an unarmed black therapist who was shot by police in Florida while he was helping an autistic patient is now suing the police officer who shot him. Without a video recording of the beginning of the interaction with the police officer showing the victim with his hands up and explaining there was no guns in sight, none of this would have been possible.

Only the future can tell us how citizen journalism will actually make a difference in bringing police accountability. However, can this kind of citizen journalism bring to light the unfortunate situation of black American?

Can these videos hold up in court or prove the use of illegal forces in these shootings?

Published by

Katia Ulysse Saint Vil

Mom, Political Communication professional, blogger, I am nonetheless just someone who likes to think, dig, analyze things, and share her findings with the world. I am also a true believer in the "better-world" philosophy, so I am trying to do my part towards this end.

3 thoughts on “Citizen Journalism: When Black Lives Matter and Cellphone Videos Expose Police Brutality

  1. What an insightful post! You’re absolutely right. Journalism has changed significantly with technology, and everyday people are able to document newsworthy issues such as police brutality against African Americans. Citizen journalism, however, has been around for a long time; my earliest recollection as a young girl was watching the video recording on the evening news of Rodney King, who in 1991 was beaten by L.A.P.D. officers. Fast forward to 2016, a huge difference is that once someone captures something on video he or she can immediately post that video online — completely bypassing news outlets that tend to pick up these videos later on from Twitter, Instagram, etc. I think you raise a very intriguing question: “Can this kind of citizen journalism bring to light the unfortunate situation of black Americans?” A New York judge referred to the courts as “the emergency room for society.” To bring about change, an essential part of rectifying the issue is not only citizen activism but also a judicial system that is “just” in its rulings. Looking forward to your next post!


    1. Thanks for your comment Jaimie. You are right citizen journalism dated to several decades, but we are now experiencing its greatest results yet through the magic of cellphone videos. Just like you pointed out let’s hope citizen activism will be the torch that carries real change in the judicial system.


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