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Smartphone Journalists Accelerate Push for Social Justice

Thanks to better video technology and the expansion of social media, citizens now have the means to monitor, disseminate and expose acts of police brutality. They are forcing the country to rethink policing practices.

Protesters film during a march denouncing police brutality
Protesters film during a march denouncing police brutality.
Lynda M. Gonzalez/The Dallas Morning News/TNS
Long-simmering grievances over police violence in America have erupted into worldwide protests. It’s not an exaggeration to say that citizens armed with cellphones have played a major role in fostering unprecedented demand for change.

Almost every American owns a cellphone of some kind, and since 2011 the percentage who own smartphones has grown from 35 percent to 81 percent. These devices aren’t just video cameras, but also gateways to a social media ecosystem that has become the main channel through which citizens obtain news, connect, form alliances and organize.

Handheld devices have made it possible for Blacks to document and push back against police use of excessive force, and to fulfill the fundamental journalistic function of holding elected officials accountable.

“The smartphone journalist is helping us make sense of what is happening at a very granular level all across America, capturing things in places where newsrooms can't be,” says Allissa V. Richardson, a professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and author of Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones and the New Protest #Journalism.

“You don't need a fancy satellite truck to participate in broadcast journalism, you don't need a fancy camera,” says Richardson, who originated the concept of mobile journalism. “You just need your phone and a Wi-Fi connection.”

Filming Injustice

It’s been more than half a century since video of police violence against Blacks first came to public attention. In 1963, television news footage of police beating peaceful protestors in Birmingham, Ala., forced political leaders to confront the truth of their inhumane treatment and added momentum to the passage of a Civil Rights bill in 1964.

In 1991, a citizen used his handheld camera to capture video of police beating Rodney King from the balcony of his apartment, footage broadcast to television viewers across the nation. The acquittal of the officers involved by a mostly white jury led to five days of rioting in Los Angeles that left 63 dead and more than 2,000 injured.

In 2009, the shooting of Oscar Grant by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer was captured on the cellphones of passengers on a BART train. The footage was posted on the internet, one of the first times that video content from a phone went viral. It marked the beginning of a new era in mobile reporting, a paradigm shift in publishing and magnified the impact of protest journalism.

Handheld Pressrooms

The percentage of adults in the U.S. who use social media increased from 5 percent in 2005 to 79 percent in 2019. Anyone with a smartphone can film, stream live video, post, share, like and critique content, create and populate a news channel and engage with a worldwide audience that includes traditional media outlets.  

“Social media has had a huge impact in disseminating privately recorded videos,” says Paul Barrett, deputy director of the NYU Center for Business and Human Rights and author of two influential social media reports from the center. “It is one of the main accelerants of the kind of activism and protesting we're seeing.”

“People are asking what's different, why is this happening now?,” he says. “I think a part of the answer is the thoroughgoing integration of social media into people's lives.”

Nancy La Vigne, vice president for justice policy at the Urban Institute, has spent decades conducting and directing research on crime, justice and public safety.

“I never thought I'd see the day where the majority of Americans think that policing is racially biased, that something has to change,” she says. “Social media is playing a big part in that.”


The term “sousveillance” was coined by the Canadian professor and engineer Steve Mann, a pioneer of mobile computing. “Surveillance” signifies higher authorities watching over citizens, while sousveillance, “watching from below,” refers to citizens monitoring the activities of those authorities using mobile technology.

Cellphones aren’t the only devices in play. Police body cameras are another attempt at sousveillance, with the potential to benefit both citizens and law enforcement. About half of U.S. law enforcement agencies are using them, but results are mixed.

Lucy Lang, executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, notes that research has found that body cameras don’t seem to change police behavior. Even so, she says, “Police often report a positive feeling about body-worn cameras, because as often as they can prove misconduct, they can also disprove allegations of misconduct.”

The presence of a camera does little to deter excessive use of force, observes La Vigne of the Urban Institute.

“The behaviors we want to change are usually born from events that put officers in fight or flight mode,” she said. “Law enforcement officers are more likely to lean towards the fight than the flight, based on their training, being in uniform and carrying weapons.”

In addition, footage of violent encounters may not even be captured. It’s up to the officer to turn on a body camera. “The more high-stakes the interactions, the less likely it is that they'll think about activating the camera, because they're thinking about things like protecting themselves or controlling an individual,” says La Vigne.

This can recoil on police. “When departments have body cameras, but they're not on when something controversial happens, it really erodes the public trust,” says Chris Hsiung, deputy chief of the Mountain View, Calif., Police Department.

Bearing Witness

In her past research and in her new book, Richardson highlights the historical significance of mobile reporting in cases where violence is used against citizens. “This is the first time African Americans can bear witness to what has happened,” she says.

“When slaves were being punished, other slaves had to look away or they became part of the punishment,” she says. “You don't see photographs of Black people around the fringes of the audience at lynchings.”

Mobile devices make it possible for Black citizens to bring violent mistreatment out of the shadows. “I’ll be blunt,” says Richardson. “The reason many African Americans have picked up their smartphones and pressed ‘record’ is because in the past, state and local governments have participated in the deadly force imposed upon them. The goal of this kind of [video] shooting is to create a new relationship between state and local governments and the people that they govern,” she says.

Richardson thinks that spending time in quarantine, being cordoned off by government and prohibited from moving freely, may have offered privileged citizens “a little peek” at what it’s like to be African American.

“I think that is why we see this multiethnic coalition outside right now,” she says. “People are waking up to the fact that if police practice on Black people and get really good at suppressing them with paramilitary forces, that authoritarian mentality could spread to the rest of America.”

Managing Real-World Relationships

Mountain View's Hsiung, a member of the board of the Government Social Media Organization, provides social media training to police departments across the country. When disturbing reports or images hit social media channels, speed and transparency are vital, he says.

Even if it is the best strategy, rapid response is challenging. Getting to the bottom of an event, in service to all concerned, can require weeks or even months of investigation, not the minutes of a television police procedural. District attorneys might prefer that nothing be said to avoid tainting the jury pool for a court case.

“Most agencies will walk a very fine line of trying to get and share as much information as they can legally and administratively,” Hsiung says. “There’s no one right way, and a lot of it comes down to the relationship with the community.”

In cases where video spreading on social media has the potential to cause serious controversy, some departments have reached out to trusted contacts in the community, screened the video for them, and talked with them about the content, context and what comes next.   

“Sometimes you can calm the community that way, but it does not work in every community,” says Hsiung. “There’s no simple answer."

Cellphones, Accountability and Change

Before coming to the John Jay College, Lucy Lang was an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, prosecuting crimes including murder and domestic violence. Lang has worked with families who have lost loved ones to police violence, and has worked with police chiefs and prosecutors to develop a set of best practices for police accountability.

Cellphone videos made by citizens during violent or fatal police encounters can be valuable tools in investigating these events. “As a longtime prosecutor, my general feeling is that the more evidence of a crime being committed, the better,” she says.

By bearing witness, citizen journalists have galvanized demand for change, and accountability is at the top of the list. According to Mapping Police Violence, only 1 percent of the officers involved in police killings between 2013 and 2019 were charged with a crime.

Accountability is just the beginning, however. “What's being called for isn't just prosecution in cases in which there's video evidence, but a culture change in law enforcement generally,” says Lang. “In particular, change in the complicated and sometimes codependent relationship between local law enforcement and local district attorneys.”

Sir Robert Peel, the father of British policing, observed that, “The police are the public and the public are the police.” The Urban Institute’s La Vigne notes that this “guardian” approach, a focus on protecting the public, has taken a back seat to a “warrior” stance, a focus on maintaining order through force.

This militarization of policing reflects factors including training practices, implementation of military-grade vehicles and weapons and the fact that policing is a favored career among ex-military personnel.

“To think differently about how we recruit and train folks, we need to look for different kinds of job qualifications,” says La Vigne.

Richardson, along with other academics and activists in the Black Lives Matter movement, believes that it’s also important to consider how the historical origins of policing in America have affected police culture. “The very first police forces were slave patrols,” she says. “Runaway slaves were captured by ordinary citizens and brought back for a bounty.”

Beyond Screens

Stepping away from screens, citizen journalists are moving from social media activism to taking steps to become part of the governments they want to change. Increasingly, Black activists are deciding to run for office, says Richardson.

“Mike Brown’s mom is running for city council,” she says. “Trayvon Martin’s mom is running for Miami-Dade County commissioner.”

Deputy Chief Hsiung sees two directions for the next phase of the current storm. “The bad way would be if the conversation continues on social media and everyone’s shouting at each other and no dialogue takes place,” he says. “That’s a very bleak future, and we’ve already seen that with politics.”

To frame the alternative, he cites a verse from the Bible: “Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

The “good way,” he believes, is for those who don’t normally talk to each other to take up the conversation that has begun on social media in person (or whatever semblance of “in person” is possible in a physically distanced world).

“What society needs is for people to come together in a forum where they each listen to each other twice as hard as they are speaking,” he says.

Richardson agrees that government should be having “hard conversations” with constituents to uncover fault lines and fractures and, when called for, to follow these with apologies and investigations.

“Government should not disenfranchise any group of people, whether LGBTQ, people of color or poor white people,” she says. “We have to keep challenging those who are elected.” 
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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