Should Journalists Blur The Faces of #BlackLivesMatter Protestors?

It could be the difference between life and death.

By: Tori B. Powell

When Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in 2014, protestors took to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri to tell the world that Black Lives Matter.

However, in years following the protests, a striking number of activists went missing—some were even found killed. While police were never able to find evidence that linked their deaths to foul play, journalists and activists have questioned how prominent protestors were all found in eerily similar circumstances. Deandre Joshua and Darren Seales both were shot in the head before found in torched vehicles in two separate occasions. Danye Jones was hanging from a tree—even though his mother said he was not suicidal. Bassem Masri was found collapsed on a bus from what was reported as an overdose. Edward Crawford Jr. was the subject of a viral photograph where he was seen throwing a container of tear gas at police officers. He allegedly shot himself. MarShawn McCarrell Jr. supposedly shot himself as well.

Each of them were protestors.

Now, the United States is facing a fresh wave of civil rights protests in response to the murder of yet another unarmed Black man, George Floyd of Minneapolis, Minnesota. But while #BlackLivesMatter activists are asking the media to conceal any identifiable features of protestors to protect their safety, many journalists covering the demonstrations are reluctant to obscure protestors’ identities.

Should they think again?

“This question of journalistic independence is at the heart of the issue,” Assistant Director of Journalism and Media Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics Anita Varma tells Media Diversity Institute, pointing out that while she does not feel that it is an ethical issue, some journalists worry that they could run the risk of “choosing sides” if they obscure protestor’s faces, thus harming their news outlet’s credibility.

For reporters like Brittany Meiling of the San Diego Union-Tribune, trustworthiness is exactly what comes to mind when she assesses this controversy.

“There’s too much room for editorializing – and even faking or lying – when names and faces are obscured,” she says, pointing out that according to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) ethical guidelines, editing a photograph is akin to changing facts.

“Leaving out these details would make most journalists worry about the veracity of their reporting.”

But credibility within this context shouldn’t be an issue according to Dr. Meredith Clark, who’s an Associate Professor at the University of Virginia with research focused on race, media and power. The former journalist says that the usage of information “on-background” – or anonymously – isn’t foreign to an industry that has relied on unnamed sources to leak classified documents, or blow the whistle on sensitive information, as seen with The Watergate Scandal in 1972.

“To say that activists and protestors can’t be afforded the same protection is to say that they are somehow less significant, less important, and less worthy of those sorts of protections,” Clark says.

Varma also doesn’t share concern over credibility with this situation in what she explains as the media’s long-running history with bias.

“It’s commonly thought that journalism should be independent and yet it never has been,” she said. “Journalism has always been serving certain interests.”

Some of those interests have a historical attachment to racism. Many media outlets have historically fixated on prejudice, with certain newspapers justifying lynching and supporting segregation throughout the nineteenth century. As an industry that largely relies on corporate advertising, corporations—and their racist agendas—can also influence media coverage. We’ve seen this recently with companies like Uber in a campaign that allowed them to “misclassify certain types of employees as independent contractors” which would leave many communities vulnerable to employee protections according to The Guardian.

“Objectivity was a concept invented by white privileged men that continues to maintain white supremacist structures,” says Executive Board Member of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, Tauhid Chappell. “Many journalists come to terms with it in their own journey and experience within the media.”

For him, it comes into play with source protection—he says that law enforcement has used surveillance to track down activists for years, meaning that a protestor’s communications with a journalist might be used against them. In fact, the FBI and various local police stations have current calls out to the public in an attempt to identify protestors as I write this.

But for others, it is an issue of public space—if someone protests in a public space, it is in the public interest.

“People protest knowing that there are consequences,” Executive Director of the National Association of Black Journalists told Media Diversity Institute, arguing that protestors will already have been seen by hundreds of other people, and it is “their responsibility” if they wish to mask their identity in any way.

But in this instance, Clark argues that the media has a responsibility to protect identities of its sources, as there is a danger that many protestors might not fully understand.

“People have a reasonable expectation of privacy,” she says, pointing out that it is people’s right to protest. “These people are out protesting because of the dire situations in their communities. Their mask may be the last of their concern.”

While some could argue that if Black Lives Matters protestors can have their identities concealed, white nationalists should also be afforded this protection. The difference is that white supremacists are not part of a vulnerable community; meanwhile, many Black Lives Matter protestors come from a community with a long-running history of oppression and harm.

In many ways, it is the media’s responsibility to protect vulnerable groups—and while there are ethical issues to consider, there are also creative ways that journalists can document protests without causing harmful repercussions to the protestors themselves.

Ultimately, it is a journalist’s duty to minimize harm to their source—a level of harm that even some journalists are unaware exists. Varma hopes that the George Floyd demonstrations will start a conversation between activists and journalists about what is at stake, and whether or not there are creative ways that journalists and photographers can cover the protests, while protecting those taking to the streets.

“[The SPJ guidelines] are just a starting point, and does not account for the complexities that inevitably come up,” she continues. “Hopefully they [journalists] can start to solicit input from people actually affected by these decisions.”

What do you think? Should journalists conceal protestors identities? Or is it a breach of ethical standards? Let us know on Twitter @MDI_UK or Instagram @mediadiversityinstitute.

Photo Credit: Mark Clennon