Allissa V. Richardson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She is recognized as a pioneer in the field of “mobile journalism,” reporting using mobile devices and social media. Her research focuses on how marginalized communities use these tools.

In 2010, she created the first smartphone-only college newsroom at Morgan State University in Baltimore. She is the author of Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones and the New Protest #Journalism and serves on the editorial boards of Digital Journalism and the International Journal of Communication. 

At the height of worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, Richardson spoke to Governing for an article about cellphone reporting. In this extended conversation, she offers insight into the origins of this new form of reporting and its origins as a tool for change.


USC professor Allissa V. Richardson.

What’s motivating the rise of mobile journalism?

The legacy of governing is really fraught for marginalized groups, because the state and local governments that they look toward to protect them, to enforce federal policies at the state level, have not done so in many cases. While the Supreme Court could say it would like schools desegregated “with all deliberate speed,” states could say, “No, we don't want to do that.” Many states did that. Virginia closed down schools for the whole year rather than integrate.

When we think about extrajudicial violence, when we think about really heinous organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, some people were hooded at lynchings and some weren't. Guess what? There were mayors there. We have documents that show commissioners were present. There were attorneys there, there were people who were elected to protect or to serve the citizens, participating openly in the killing of another member of the community.

When you think about all of these things compounded, you can see why it's very difficult for African Americans to trust the government to protect them.

How can mobile journalism change this dynamic?

In many of the cases that I've studied and highlighted, an official report of what happened has come out from government, a state or a municipality. And later, the humble mobile phone comes along and says, “Actually, that's not what happened.”

We saw this in the case of Walter Scott, where Michael Slager said that Mr. Scott went for his gun and tried to attack him. But then a Black witness who had a cellphone, Feidin Santana, says, “That's not true. I saw you and I filmed you shooting him in the back.”

That official report would have been parroted to the mass media, had not a citizen journalist come along and created a counter-narrative. That counter-narrative is often what drives the engine of justice.

There would not be all this outcry right now if we did not have that George Floyd footage, if we did not have the Ahmaud Arbery footage. These are cases where the police could have said anything and we would have had to believe them because that's what we've been conditioned to do.

Early on, almost all the cellphone recording of police violence were made by people of color. Is that still the case?

Initially it did start out as a marginalized practice because of the need to feed that counter-narrative. Now people from all walks of life are realizing they need to keep their phones charged. We need to look no further than that incident in Buffalo, New York, at a widely white protest.

You had protesters with their phones being faced by a militarized line of police across the area where they were attempting to march. During that process, we see a 75-year-old knocked down. His skull is fractured and he can’t walk.

Journalists aren't even safe. We have revered journalists like Amy Goodman of Democracy Now who were on the front lines of Ferguson. Even she had to keep her cellphone on because she was arrested in the course of just doing her work.

How big an audience can mobile journalists reach?

They have millions of followers. At any given time, more people may be tuning in to them than to Don Lemon and Anderson Cooper.

Many of the activists that I talked to for the book also have podcasts. Some have upward of 2 million listeners. To say that they're still amateurs and that they're just putting out jittery footage on YouTube is doing them a disservice, because so many of them have created sophisticated methods of disseminating their information that rival some of the biggest names in journalism.

I think it's hard to see because we're living within a paradigm shift. It’s difficult for most people to get their head around the fact that this is such a monumental game changer.

How has social media factored into the growth the Black Lives Matter movement?

A lot of people of color coalesce on Twitter. African Americans are roughly 14 percent of the U.S. population, but at any given time they account for over 30 percent of the traffic on social platforms.

Every time you go online and you see a huge thread starting, it's an attempt to create a digital safe space. We may not be able to talk about things in person, but when you join a digital space, boundaries and barriers fall away and the distance collapses. You can create hashtags like #blackintheivory, where African Americans are talking about what it means to be Black in the ivory tower.

Marginalized communities are looking for ways to connect with each other, especially in times of crisis. As I say in my book, this is the first era of domestic terror against Black people where Black people were allowed to look and to be present.

That's why you have this outpouring of Black people saying, “I'm not going to leave you. I may not have been able to be with you before, but I am not going to leave you in this moment. As much as it hurts me to watch, I will, and I will carry the message to your family and to the government so that something can be done. In the past, no one would have stood in the gap for you. Now I can.”

Are there downsides to social media publishing? 

That's a really fraught topic right now in academia. We're all looking at it as a gift and a curse. The initial thought was that these social media platforms would democratize the spreading of this information.

We do have to credit platforms like Facebook, which launched Facebook Live. When Diamond Reynolds picked up that camera and dared to press “record,” we saw Philando Castile being killed in real time, the first time Facebook live had been used to document police brutality. Twitter has been essential, especially with its native Periscope live streaming app, because people can show what's happening in real time during protests.

The curse is that now the governments are using the same tools to track people. Peaceful protesters report to me that they are regularly surveilled by state-sponsored agencies. Sometimes police officers call out to protestors by their Twitter handles.

New forces are springing up within government to track the behavior of peaceful protesters, in violation of their First Amendment rights. These are the kinds of things that alarm both activists and scholars. We’re looking at these tools as hopeful ways to disseminate information, but also realizing that the use of geotagging, facial recognition and machine learning can expose people to being monitored.

Again, we are talking about broken social contracts.

Has this moment of sheltering in place affected the conversation? 

For the first time in history, we were all primed to kind of be looking at the same channels. We were all looking for the same information about COVID-19.

We were a captive audience to the smartphone in ways that we may not have been before.  Sports would have distracted us. The Kardashians would have distracted us. But sports were on hold. Most TV shows are on hiatus. There's only so much Netflix you can watch. Many people became familiar with this topic because they couldn't look away any longer.

Citizens have been working together to protect each other. We've been sheltering in place and avoiding hugging and shaking hands to protect each other. I have done a ton of Twitter sentiment analysis. I’ve been seeing the theme of keeping each other safe rise to the top for the past three months.

If we’re going to obey and do what is safe and prudent in terms of sheltering in place, and we are trying to do our part to protect each other so that we don’t die off from this disease, surely the police can do their part to keep us safe.

If getting back to the business of reopening the country is going to result in police brutality, if that's how we're going to reopen this thing, by getting back to the business of being choked or shot, that is unacceptable.