Media Choreography and the Occupy LA Raid

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During the Los Angeles Police Department's forcible removal of the Occupy LA protest last night, they chose 12 reporters and photographers to represent the media as a whole.* This is called a "media pool" -- and it used to be a fairly time-honored, if oft-derided, way of dealing with very specific types of situations. The original idea was that a select group of mainstream media journalists go into a military engagement, report their observations to a larger group, and then everyone could write from the same observed facts.

Growing beyond its military borders, the media pool concept has been deployed during political conventions, high-profile trials, and in a few other cases. In all cases, though, as summarized in the Encyclopedia of Television, the pool "offers those who employ it a way to manage media coverage."

It strikes me as significant that the compromise developed in the 1980s after the media was barred from covering the invasion of Grenada. It also strikes me as significant that we use the term "compromise" to describe it. The first and second meanings of compromised come into play: "to settle a dispute by mutual concession" and "to weaken (a reputation or principle) by accepting standards that are lower than is desirable."

All of that brings us to last night's media pool. The LAPD deployed this old-school method in a decidedly 20th-century way. First, they didn't select a single web-based publication or alternative news outlet. Instead they allowed the Los Angeles Daily News, Los Angeles Times, Reuters, AP, the big four television outlets, and a two radio reporters. Anybody not in that group -- which would include reporters for every website not affiliated with a newspaper in Los Angeles, not to mention all citizens performing acts of journalism -- were told that they would be arrested if they came too close to the eviction area.

The LAPD forbade their pool reporters from reporting the events live. (Update: See bottom of the post for details. The restriction was more akin to a kind of tape-delay than an embargo.) This helped to neutralize a key informational advantage that Occupy protesters have exploited. As confrontations with police begin, they are able to use the emotional imagery from those events to draw more support in real-time. Of course, in this case, there were some people writing about the events in real-time and others livestreamed, but only if they were willing to risk arrest.

Let's stipulate that there are real issues surrounding how charged situations can or should be covered by card carrying-media or citizen journalists. Fine. Still, my thought is that this sort of media choreography cannot survive for long. The tools to record and distribute information about the world are too widely distributed. A video of protesters getting pepper sprayed has impact whether it comes from the Los Angeles Times or some dude with an iPhone.

But institutions do not have to take this democratization of reporting tools lying down. Many organizations want to control -- and are used to controlling -- media narratives. They will (I can hear Evgeny Morozov whispering into my ear) have an institutional response to the deployment of new technology by political dissenters. In this case, the LAPD has come up with a way to say that they allowed media into the eviction and they can still arrest people that they don't want to cover the event.

City police departments share a lot of information and if the LAPD's strategy is seen as successful, expect it will be deployed again in other cities. More broadly, it seems plausible that government agencies will continue to buddy up to traditional media members, offering them exclusive access in exchange for agreeing to the exclusion of citizen journalists from important events. Sadly, the incentives of the elite media (many of which have never been all that fond of the non-professionals stealing their show) and the government are aligned here. That's a bad setup, even assuming (as I do) that the individual media members in the pool are acting in good faith.

* UPDATE 3:15 EST: I emailed with Dakota Smith, a Daily News reporter who helped cover the raid from inside the park. She gave me a more complete description of how the pool worked, which I think is worth spelling out. It gives you an idea both of how hard individual news organizations can work on something like this -- and how much the conditions can be altered to help or hinder journalism by the enabling force. In this case, it sounds like the LAPD did not hinder efforts as much as they could have.

"All of the print reporters filed directly to the pool. The POOL consisted of our our editors, editors of other print publications, and a central news service that anyone else (tv, radio, more print) could read," Smith told me. "Once we filed to the POOL... that info could go live anywhere. The premise was that we just couldn't be greedy and publish information from inside the park directly to our own site without first sharing with the POOL so everyone could have it at the same time. I don't know what the other pool reporters did, but I just sent in short news briefs all night long."

Once those briefs were live, that information could be published by any news organization. So, the LAPD did not technically prevent reporters from getting information out in close to real-time. Rather, the process of ensuring equal access to pool reports required time. As a final detail, here's how Smith described the mechanics of getting stories from inside the park onto the web.

"We were inside the park, but there were multiple reporters from each publication outside the park, doing more reporting," she wrote. "Our editors on the outside were reading the POOL and then also taking stories from outside the park, and crafting them for the web, so there were many eyes. So stories that we were writing from inside the park went live on the newspaper sites, and other news sites within minutes."

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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