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Any Journalist Can Become A Media Troll, Even ‘Neutral’ Journalists

Posted in Creative Commons, and Journalism

Recently, I’ve watched protesters turn increasingly hostile against some media, especially livestreamers. Even though I’m a journalist, I find myself agreeing with protesters that streamers can put them at risk.

Any journalist, even well meaning ones, can become a media troll if they endanger movements. And right now, as we face off with ascendant fascism, the potential risks to activists are very high. Remember, The First Amendment doesn’t grant you the right to film people’s faces or put protesters at risk without facing social consequences.

Journalists need to understand these risks and react accordingly. And there are still journalists successfully covering the protests. It would be wise to emulate what those reporters do to make themselves safer to the people in the streets.

How neutral journalists become media trolls

Recently, I turned on the livestream of a popular local livestreamer, and found him arguing with activists over his coverage.

He’s a young man that found a passion for reporting on Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s murder. He’s got a growing following on his feed … and increasing hostility in the streets. I’m sorry it’s come to this. I don’t want to see him hurt or his equipment damaged. But I’m still sympathetic to his opponents.

I’ve watched his feed as he followed a protest, picking out organizers and people in key roles along the way, only to see those people arrested by police at the end of the event. He never mutes his feed, even when folks are having private, tactical discussions about their next moves during a protest.

He’s devoted to “neutral journalism,” which for him means hearing from all sides including sympathetically talking with police and even giving a platform to pro-cop fascists. This kind of thing inevitably leads to hostility when protesters are fighting for their right to live.

I’m not naming the reporter here and, again, I don’t think he’s deliberately harming anyone. But by remaining studiously “neutral,” through a dedication to document absolutely everything, he’s actually hurt the movement he claims he’s “just” covering.

The First Amendment and media trolls

I agree with the idea that the First Amendment is about protection from government censorship. It won’t protect you from the consequences of your actions.

If you say something racist or otherwise hateful, and you can still lose your job and your friends can ostracize you without violating your constitutional rights.

XKCD's famous "free speech" comic: "Your free speech rights aren't being violated, it's just that the people listening think you're an asshole."
Your free speech rights aren’t being violated, it’s just that people think your reporting is dangerous and shitty and they’re showing you the door. (, Creative Commons NonCommercial License)

Journalists need to learn they aren’t exempt. The media often imagines itself in a special class, able to report free of consequences from their reporting. This simply isn’t true.

We can see this in the ample and deserved criticisms of how media handled Trump’s rise to power, and it can be true in the streets as well. If your reporting leads to people getting arrested, or attacks by fascists, you can’t expect to be welcomed with open arms. If a journalist can take reasonable steps to keep protesters safer when they’re fighting fascism, white supremacy, or the harms of late-stage capitalism … they should do so!

On smashing cameras and media trolls

Today, livestreaming is becoming increasingly unpopular, but there’s a lot of criticism of media in general. Some leftist folks on Twitter like to share the essay “In Defense of Smashing Cameras,” which is an extreme response to this problem.

I wrote my zine “Beyond the Concrete Milkshake” to offer gentler ways of dealing with media trolls. That wasn’t primarily out of sympathy for trolls, but because assaulting media trolls or their property can fuel a dangerous right wing narrative. It’s the kind of thing that leads to shitheels like Andy Ngo earning fat paychecks and testifying before Congress after getting hit with a (vegan, non-concrete) milkshake.

At the end of the day though, I support activists and movements doing what they must to protect themselves and their communities. The dangers they’re facing are very real.

I also think media has a vital role to play. Documenting this moment is important for history and to the people of today. It helps win over more potential supporters. It can protect activists from police violence or getting “disappeared.”

In our culture, the media frequently dismisses the voices of the oppressed, when it covers them at all. It’s up to journalists to prove our worth and our trustworthiness.

Working class solidarity between journalists and movements

With police and our government intensifying their attacks on both journalists and protesters, we should be working in solidarity.

The aims of the media and the aims of protesters don’t always align perfectly. There’s times when they should differ. At the same time, we face a common enemy.

Most journalists are just as much victims of the horrors of late stage capitalism as anyone else. They’re barely making a living and working in workplaces where unfair conditions are commonplace.

Most reporters got into this line of work to try to make to world a better place. Now they’re being told by fascists that they should rot in a prison cell (or worse) for reporting facts.

Right now, we’re all in a fight against fascism and climate collapse. There’s a movement in the streets fighting against a racist, unaccountable police force backed by an openly white supremacist President. That means that, as journalists, we have to make tough choices.

Even if you aren’t a gonzo journalist, there’s no way to remain truly neutral in this moment.

But I don’t want to be a media troll!

I didn’t intend this brief article to be a how-to guide to better reporting, but rather a demand for journalists to do better in the face of fascism.

I’d like to write more about this topic. I did publish a two-part guide to citizen journalism and livestreaming, including a look at the ethics of livestreaming.

At the same time, I think it’s important to note that livestreaming is an advanced tactic, and maybe best avoided altogether under current circumstances. Sharing regular updates such as livetweeting, then later assembling your coverage can be more valuable and a lot safer.

Livetweeting rather than streaming gives you time to do a lot more. Ask permission, blur faces, take a moment to think about what to share … and what not to share.

Creative Commons LicenseAny Journalist Can Become A Media Troll, Even ‘Neutral’ Journalists by Kit O’Connell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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