On a clear, cold March Saturday night, Jessica Hollie huddled for warmth with a group of Occupy activists in Oakland’s Henry J. Kaiser Park. Hollie puffed on a cigarette and talked about the first time she was tear gassed by Oakland Police—Occupy’s Jan. 28 “Move-in Day”—her distrust of mainstream media and her disappointment in the criminal justice system.
“Journalism is a form of my activism,” Hollie said. The 28-year-old East Oakland native commonly known as Bella—short for her media handle BellaEiko—streams live video from Occupy events, and she is not alone.
Unsatisfied with mainstream media’s coverage of the Occupy Movement, a handful of Bay Area activists are leading the way in citizen journalism. Armed with the latest technology, they stream live video from events, hoping to more accurately portray the movement and safeguard themselves and other activists from police action.
“I consider myself someone documenting history,” Hollie said.
Packing an iPad, mobile hot spot and several batteries, Hollie can capture and stream video live from any event, anytime. Her video is uploaded instantly to Ustream, a platform that can reach thousands, depending on the event.
Hollie’s media footprint extends farther; her Facebook page reaches almost 700 people a week and another 1,300 people a month view her blog. Thus far, supporters have donated more than $2,300 to Hollie through a www.WePay.com account.
Niesha Lofing, president of the Pacific Media Workers Guild and managing editor for the Sacramento Valley Union Labor Bulletin, said media consumers and working journalists are relying more and more on this new breed of journalism.
“One of the key things to note is there are many ways that journalists work these days. The old ways of looking at journalism aren’t accurate anymore,” Lofing said. “The new technology is redefining what journalism is.”
The cutbacks, layoffs and overall downsizing occurring in the onslaught of the media revolution have made the citizen journalist really valuable, Lofing said. This is especially true of live streamers, who have become invaluable for working journalists reporting on events where access, timing and staffing difficulties arise.
“Where the line is drawn in the sand between working journalist and citizen journalist is a distinction that’s tricky,” Lofing said.
Citizen journalism unleashes the age-old discussion of objectivity—one of the professional commandments the working media attempts to uphold.
“Working journalists are the 99 percent,” Lofing said, but she added that reporters at Occupy events should do their best to cover them objectively.
“If you can’t divorce yourself from who you are, you put it on hold,” she said.
James Cartmill has been live streaming for the last seven months. The tech industry brought him to the Bay Area, but he became a journalist after stumbling into the Occupy San Francisco camp.
“I’m doing this because I’m a freedom fighter—a grunt on the front lines,” said Cartmill, “It’s my patriotic dream to be videoing the wrong doings of the cops.”
Citizen journalists, as opposed to professionals, have the ability to create their own code of journalism ethics—for better or worse.
“I get to do what I want,” Cartmill said. “I get to shoot from the hip.”
Not all journalists agree about the concept of objectivity in reporting, or the professional news media’s adherence to it.
“The objectivity and detachment of the reporter in traditional journalism has been debunked,” said Dori Maynard, president of the Oakland-based Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. “People now understand that varying perspectives play a role in the media.”
The Maynard Institute’s goal is for the media to reflect all sections of society. One of its newest programs, Oakland Voices, offers workshops to teach community members to be their own storytellers, and then connects them with local newspapers.
“Traditional media is overwhelmingly white, and the mainstream depiction of people of color is greatly inaccurate,” Maynard said. “Citizen journalism will help tell the story of the man of color.”
The mainstream news media has ceased functioning as a watchdog against government corruption according to Hollie.
“I’m not challenging or incriminating the individual journalist,” she said. “It’s the corrupt system of journalism that’s the problem.”
After watching live streams from activists around the world, Matt Gratz began reporting on the live feeds for his Political Fail Blog.
“I always felt mainstream media ignored all the real issues,” said Gratz, who calls himself an independent journalist, blogger and photographer. “I only follow bloggers and citizen journalists … we can tell the story better as citizen journalists, because we are the story—we understand.”
The police don’t always make a distinction between journalists—citizen or professional—and activists.
The Jan. 28 clash between Occupy Oakland protesters and police resulted in the arrests of more than 400 hundred activists and citizen journalists, as well as several professional journalists.
“It is a line that blurs itself,” Hollie said. “It didn’t matter if you were a journalist or an activist—police were still going to kettle you and then gas you.”
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan created a stir when she suggested that “the fake media around Occupy” may have caused the working media’s arrests during the January skirmish.
Lofing acknowledged that protesters claiming to be journalists do get in the way of real journalists doing their jobs.
In an email to Bay News Movement clarifying Quan’s statement, the mayor’s assistant, Susan Piper, wrote that a journalist is a “neutral observer representing an established media outlet,” not an activist-blogger.
The Oakland Police Chief and the City Attorney’s office are working to redefine the department’s media law, according to OPD spokesman Johnna Watson.
“Right now the policy is very broad; we want to define it more,” she said, but refused to comment on any specifics.
Current OPD policy is to treat all persons claiming to be journalists as members of the working press Watson said.
Loifing said that the prospect of local law enforcement agencies and government officials deciding who is a journalist is scary.
“It shouldn’t be up to the government to choose who a journalist is and who isn’t,” she said. “At the end of the day, working journalists are being harassed—it’s our first amendment rights.”
Hollie said she hasn’t felt safe since joining and documenting the Occupy Movement, fearing that law enforcement may be watching and following her.
“I’m a lot more stressed out now after becoming a streamer,” she said.
But, she says live-streaming video of the marches and rallies, helps ensure a level of safety for herself and accountability for the police.