Lou's Views

An image of a man with a flag during a riot at the US Capitol.
An image of a man with a flag during a riot at the US Capitol.

I’ll admit it: If someone said to me, “Have you kept up with Darnella Frazier?” I’d have to answer “Darnella who?” Maybe you know her. She’s a high school senior, a 17-year-old whose Facebook page features an emoji-studded love note to her puppy Journii, captured in the act of sleeping on a stuffed lamb. Oh, and she’s got selfies. Lots and lots of selfies.

But last month, Darnella became something else: an award-winning example for journalists and would-be truth tellers everywhere. PEN America, a literature-human rights organization dedicated to protecting free expression, bestowed on her the 2020 PEN/Benenson Courage Award.

Because in less time than it will take you to order coffee at a crowded Starbucks, she shot video of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of since-fired Minneapolis Police offer Derek Chauvin. She reached into her pocket, pulled out her phone and caught it. All 8 minutes and 46 seconds of it. And in the process, she launched a blizzard of protests in her home city, nationwide, and worldwide to oppose systemic racism and brutality in U.S. police departments.

Nor is Darnella alone in her bravery. In fact, everyday citizens made 2020 the year of Citizen Smartphone Journalism. They grabbed their iPhones and Galaxies and Pixels and documented stories that made the news everywhere.

Citizen journalism and media synergy

Most recently, smartphones played a major role in capturing the violent mob Donald Trump whipped up as it descended on the U.S. Capitol. In a stunning feat, some of the goony goons outed themselves either inadvertently or out of stupidity, posting videos they made on Facebook and Parler. In fact, ProPublica scoured Parler’s pages — as flimsy in their security as piss-wet toilet paper — and found more than 500 videos that they determined “were relevant and newsworthy.” Watch them by clicking here. It’s atop my must-view list.

ProPublica raiding Parler’s video-scumbag vaults represents a funhouse-mirror version of media outlets snatching the baton from citizen documentarians. But on the upside of the coin, we also saw many mainstream news organizations pick up the videos that concerned and alarmed observers shot — the Darnella Fraziers of the world — and gave them the platform they deserved.

Nor is the citizen’s greatest weapon for the greater media good an exclusive tool that only they can use. Working journalists who didn’t brandish their still cameras or video crews had their sophisticated pocket computer at the ready. And let’s face it: When you’re trying to work your way through a compressed, violent and deranged mob, that smartphone may be your best bet in bringing home the news.

Can I get a witness to history?

Here’s the thing: Journalists, when we do our job exceedingly well, are witnesses to history. We write its first draft and images (unless manipulated) do not lie. But just as the music industry was democratized by downloads and streaming, or big-budget TV by YouTube,  journalism has experienced a period unlike any other in terms of catching unguarded moments.

No one would know about “Central Park Karen” Amy Cooper if the person she tried to victimize through her actions, bird watcher Christian Cooper, hadn’t been alert enough to hold up his phone and take action – as in, “lights, camera action.” Since January 6th, some politicians have tried to explain away the Capitol riots. But when the footage shows thousands of people carrying Trump banners, it’s impossible to ignore. The news media has done an exemplary job documenting this story, investigating it and keeping it alive.

But make no mistake, Civilian Smartphone Journalism has played a huge role as well. And it’s a 110 percent certainty that in 2021, this trend will continue to grow, and God willing, keep some of our society’s most dangerous malcontents in check. And now, everyone can get in on the act and document big stories as they happen. This is huge for several reasons:

1) No reporter, no matter how fearless and fleet of foot, can be on-hand when a big news story breaks in real time.
2) Every citizen within eye shot of an alarming or breaking event can document it and tell the world. You don’t even need a news network to do it. Darnella Frazier used Facebook.
3) As so many of these stories involve crime and punishment, we can definitively put the finger on criminals reveling in the act.

Get it on the good footage

Think about it. Before Steve Jobs trotted out his “just one more thing” shtick and introduced the iPhone to the world in 2007, none of this was possible, unless you happened to have a bulky videocam handy. Of course, there are dangers. Some citizens with agendas will select the events they attend and look for incriminating footage to shoot. That may have been the case with John Sullivan, a controversial liberal activist who, according to the Washington Post, shot footage showing the killing of Capitol rioter Ashli Babbitt.

Nor do I harbor any doubts that this metaphorical axe — which can be used to chop wood or go on a homicidal rampage — has its dangers. Technology only promises to make the dark art of manipulating video easier. Some of it deceptively cast President Joe Biden in an unflattering light, as documented in the Post. Ah, but it was embraced by Trump’s White House social media director Dan Scavino during the election season and Tweeted by the former president. (Aren’t you glad he’s off Twitter?)

Praise Walter Cronkite that for now, doctored video can only be achieved by putting in a good amount of time at a sit-down computer to re-check and smooth over video edits — a skill very few Joe and Jane Citizens possess. And Sullivan, an admittedly biased bystander, still recorded a killing on camera. That represents unvarnished, non-manipulated truth: the immediacy of a deadly event taking place in a historic, breaking story — and captured for posterity.

That, friends, is the news. In the meantime, here’s to Frazier and Sullivan and Christian Cooper and every brave citizen that has furthered journalism’s cause. Frazier? She’s a high school student. Maybe next time it’s her teacher. Or a plumber. Or an off-duty reporter. Or you. If it’s happening in front of you, you don’t even have to think about it. Just phone it in.

Lou Carlozo is Qwoted’s Editor in Chief. All opinions expressed are the product of verbal manipulation. lou@qwoted.com or connect with me on LinkedIn.