Protests can pose difficult challenges

Protests are a challenge for journalists in a number of ways.

They can be a cauldron that mixes fervor – often angry fervor, concern – often deep concern – about one or more issues, along with frustration, energy, emotion, lots of things.

They are usually uncomfortable, because most of us don’t naturally feel inclined to go out and stand on a street corner to wave signs and yell and draw attention to ourselves. At least, I’m not.

They’re often unstable – you never know what’s going to happen, because people are stressed and have already thrown aside constraints they normally feel.

That’s why they should be covered when they happen, because they are unusual and that makes them newsworthy. The fact that someone has had the gumption to get out and make a point publicly is usually worthy of notice.

More on that in a moment.

It isn’t news that we’re living in turbulent times. COVID has severely disrupted our daily lives, our economy and public education, forced us to avoid public engagement, forced us to wear masks to do our business, canceled weddings and funerals, and put a stop to activities many of us enjoy – concerts, movies, sports, business gatherings, club activities, church, etc., etc.

Obviously, this is not a comprehensive list.

Sure, there have been positives: Families have been doing more together in the absence of normal distractions, people have gotten their “to do” lists done, some businesses that cater to the needs of the sequestered have done very well, and we’ve all had time to think more about important things – like life, liberty and happiness.

Which brings us back to the rallies. The death of George Floyd definitely sparked outrage and a vigorous arousal of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has led to the protests and violence in Oregon and beyond.

Some are concerned about the Marxist origins of BLM – its originators, anyway.

Overarching all of this are a sense of disruption and questions about the role of government in controlling the spread of COVID-19, which I personally think have fomented a high level of anxiety, if not outrage, on both sides of the political aisle.

We saw some, thankfully restrained, evidences of that in Sweet Home Friday evening. Kudos to the organizers and participants, who appeared to stay well within the bounds of propriety in exercising their constitutional rights to express their opinions.

As I said earlier, protests can be challenging, both in terms of physical danger and ethically, for journalists.

I remember discussing this when I was pursuing a master’s degree in journalism, when I had an opportunity to devote time to thinking about and discussing such things with others who had similar interests and concerns.

I recall talking about how the point of protests is to draw attention – obviously particularly from the news media, and how that fits into the philosophy of journalism that one follows.

When I was first learning to be a journalist (a process that really never ends, by the way), most of the editors I worked with still believed that the goal was to try to be objective – neutral – as possible in reporting news, which certainly raised questions about how we should respond to staged events intended, at least in part, to attract our attention.

These days there’s more of an emphasis in many journalism programs on focusing less on objectivity – since it’s something that is never going to be fully achieved because we all see things through subjective eyes, and more on pursuing and reporting news as an advocate.

A lot of journalism that has changed the world has been done by advocates, but a lot has also been accomplished by reporters and editors whose goal was providing non-biased factual accounts of events and problems in society.

One approach tends to advocate a position. The other focuses on facts and relies on the reader to make intelligent decisions from the information provide.

Like many areas in journalism, there are a lot of gray areas here, and this isn’t the place to go into the pros and cons of those approaches, though when I hear people complain about how the “mainstream media,” in their opinion, skew news, in most cases I think they’re responding to advocacy journalism.

I’ve had a number of conversations recently with people who blame the media for perpetuating the violence, for encouraging it by covering it.

That’s one of the concerns for journalists, the very topics we discussed back in grad school, where we were encouraged to ponder such points.

As I said earlier, protests can be incendiary and we’ve certainly seen that on TV.

Remember, however, that what you see on TV and, frankly, often read about in the newspaper is the most extreme activity that’s taking place. Images of people marching or standing peacefully aren’t as compelling as those of angry protesters or those who exploit the opportunity presented in spirited demonstrations (not always the same people) to smash windows and launch Molotov cocktails at police and government buildings.

It’s not that these reporters are failing in doing their jobs. But, especially in today’s world of pared-down news staffs, we only get part of the picture because there aren’t the resources to cover such an event as fully as it should be. Bear that in mind when you watch the news, especially from the violent big-city protests.

As I noted to one reader recently, TV coverage might give a viewer the impression that the city of Portland is in flames, but in reality the action might only be occurring in a two- or three-block stretch in downtown. Five blocks away, people might be buying ice cream, oblivious to what’s going on (if they aren’t watching their cellphones).

It seems to me that journalists seem to be at more at risk right now, then in the past. We’ve heard accounts of reporters being injured, pelted with garbage, tear gassed, arrested, etc. That adds to the confusion and challenge of providing an accurate picture of what’s going on.

Again, I’m rally thankful that the rallies in east Linn County in recent weeks have been peaceful. That’s a testament to local residents who can hold strong opinions but convey them with character, in a law-abiding fashion.

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On an entirely different note: We’ve gotten a bunch of letters recently that lack phone numbers. We require phone numbers, not for publication, but so we can contact a writer if we have questions. See the gray box above. Thanks!