Online activism is becoming the new norm. With the accessible nature of social media platforms, voicing an opinion takes a matter of seconds, and turning a hashtag into a movement could occur in a matter of minutes. However, covering an online movement looks different than covering an in-person movement, and recognizing those differences and adjusting reporting methods accordingly is vital.
Consider your audience
The Black Lives Matter movement has seen a surge in hashtags and online trends that social media users are utilizing, including #BlackoutTuesday, #DefundThePolice and the original #BLM. There are so many conversations about the movement happening online, it can be difficult to follow — and difficult to know which angles to report on.
Andrew Hutchinson, content and social media manager at Social Media Today — a news publication that reports on social media platforms — said in an email that when monitoring online activism, the most important aspect to focus on is the intended audience.
“This comes down to knowing your audience and what's relevant for them,” Hutchinson said.
He uses official announcements, advance notes, user reports and media monitoring to keep track of conversations happening online. Useful tools for journalists reporting on online movements include CrowdTangle, which helps track leading stories on social media, and Keyhole, which monitors hashtag usage.
With the vast amount of content being posted on social media platforms daily, Hutchinson stressed the importance of staying up to date with relevant news, and he recommends doing so by strategically curating platform feeds, like Twitter, and following accounts that deliver the most relevant and accurate information.
Ruchira Sharma, staff writer at iNews, a British national paper, has been covering online activism for Black Lives Matter, and she said that in her coverage, she always makes sure to fact-check posts that are gaining traction to prevent the spread of misinformation.
Covering online activism differs from covering in-person activism, Sharma said, and it comes with challenges that a journalist may not necessarily face when reporting on the ground.
Misinformation can spread through all forms of social media, whether intentional or not. The Black Lives Matter Global Network has a form on their website that users can fill out if they spot suspicious posts regarding the movement, and they warn activists to be mindful of accounts that post in unnatural patterns and different time zones.
Find the people behind the movement
Ultimately, when covering online activism, the most important thing for journalists to be conscious of are the people behind the posts. If an online protest is gaining traction, Sharma said, figure out how it impacts change that is happening offline.
“If we start reporting just by stopping at hashtags, that’s not enough,” said Dr. Filippo Trevisan, who previously worked as a reporter in Rome and currently teaches and researches online activism at American University. “Go and talk to the activists and have a conversation about what it is they are looking to achieve. If the hashtag is the point of entry, there is more work that needs to be done to properly engage with voices that are emerging from online protests.”
“I think trying to get in touch with the people at the center of it can be quite tricky,” Sharma said. “Some naturally want to talk to raise the profile of the cause, whereas others are more suspicious of journalists, or simply want to raise money or carry out their cause and don't make their identity or contact information very clear.”
An easy way to get in touch with the right person is to ask. If you see someone post about an online protest, ask them where they got their information and see if they can lead you to the person at the center. And if the protest is sponsored by an organization, an employee can likely put you in touch with an organizer.
When reporting on a social movement like Black Lives Matter, journalists should situate the story — especially what is happening online — within a larger context.
“If we admit the understanding of the protest within the broader context, it becomes easier to uphold objectivity standards and provide a fuller picture of not just what’s happening on the ground, but what’s surrounding it,” Trevisan said. “Why are people here, why are they taking the action that they are taking and what are they working towards?”
Some newsrooms in the U.S. are grappling with how to cover Black Lives Matter, and the underlying issues of inequality and racism, in a way that is fair and objective. Differing opinions on how to best cover the movement has led to conflict over the past few weeks. For example, the top editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer resigned over the controversial headline, “Buildings Matter, Too,” and a Black reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was removed from covering the protests after editors claimed she showed bias on Twitter.
However, Sharma believes that journalists are actually adding a level of objectivity that has been missing from coverage for years simply by covering these protests, and adding context to them, as they happen on and offline.
“The facts speak for themselves when it comes to racism and police violence against Black people,” said Sharma. “I think by platforming the protests and online activism happening, we're doing the bare minimum, and remaining objective even, as there have been decades of not covering these issues accurately or effectively. In covering these stories and giving them greater attention, we're attempting to introduce neutral coverage.”