For the past year, Nora Quinlan, 23, has been stuck working for a center-right political talk show. She wanted to do something she believed in, but she was a TV news producer at a company she “hated.”
When protests against police brutality erupted in late May after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, she suddenly had the opportunity to pursue something she found more meaningful. Teaming up with a friend from journalism school, she and a group of young reporters began posting live updates about the demonstrations under the Twitter handle @Protest_NYC.
More than 36,000 followers and four months later, Quinlan– who asked to be called by a diminutive of her first name and her middle name out of fear of retaliation from her employer– is still tweeting; @Protest_NYC covered a demonstration in Brooklyn on Tuesday night where the police arrested nearly 30 people, according to Gothamist. And Quinlan and her three fellow “co-editors” are not alone. They are joined by a handful of young, independent reporters in New York City who eschew traditional media outlets and deliver their reports on protests directly to Twitter and Instagram.
Their emergence comes after a recent reckoning for journalists across the U.S. concerning traditional accounts of “objectivity” and its place during what may be the largest series of protests in American history.
“Anyone who tells you how you have to follow certain rules in sharing the truth doesn’t want you sharing actual truth,” Talia Jane, an independent reporter with a shock of blue hair, said in a phone interview.
NYPD SRG using a baton to smash the windows of a car in Brooklyn, NY tonight.— TALIA JANE (NOT LAVIN) (@itsa_talia) October 28, 2020
Car was surrounded by SRG while trying to safely leave.
Fortunately there was no one in the passenger side otherwise that baton would’ve caused serious injury. Driver got away unharmed. pic.twitter.com/tqyO1yQ1DY
Like Quinlan and her co-editors, Jane, 30, delivers daily reports on the city’s protests to approximately 30,000 Twitter followers. She considers herself a “beat reporter” who has embedded herself in New York City’s protest community since late July.
“I’ve had 16-, 18-hour days,” she said, describing the time she spends on reporting that—although supported by more than 100 donors—is free to the public.
Despite having written for larger media outlets like Vice and Elle, Jane has decided to forgo more traditional journalistic norms in her most recent work. For example, she refuses to photograph or film people’s faces when she’s reporting on a protest. And her reporting and analysis sometimes verge from the “what has happened” to the “what should happen,” a turn that might raise the eyebrows of those who see reporters as purely observers.
For Jane, that stance of objectivity is bunk. “That’s a pretty lie reporters tell themselves,” she said.
Jane is more outspoken in her criticisms of existing journalistic norms than, for example, Kevin Xavier, the founder and editor-in-chief of NYC Protest Coverage, a weekly podcast and Instagram handle with more than 13,000 followers.
“As an entity, we don’t support or advocate for any particular agenda,” Xavier, 36, said in a phone interview. “The content that we provide on [NYC Protest Coverage] is the closest we can come to objectivity.”
Xavier believes that “Black lives matter” is a statement of fact. Similar to Jane and Quinlan, he and his “staff”—or volunteer reporters he directs—also try to avoid taking photos of people’s faces during protests when possible.
The three young journalists spoken to for this story exhibit a degree of care, or cautiousness, for protecting their sources. Quinlan, for instance, pointed out that she and her co-editors avoid identifying their interviewees, as opposed to more traditional media outlets.
“Even if somebody says, ‘Yeah, we’re OK being attributed,’ that could still be dangerous for that protester,” she said.
Their challenge of pre-existing journalistic standards reflects a broader debate among American journalists since the protests first began. In a piece in The New York Times published in late June, Wesley Lowery, a longtime reporter, challenged traditional newsroom norms, a debate that other news organizations like Columbia Journalism Review soon took up.
These conversations occurred after a well-publicized controversy in which the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pulled a Black reporter from covering the protests after she posted a tweet poking fun at the media’s depictions of protesters who were “looting.”
“When you announce an opinion about a person or story you are reporting on you compromise your reporting,” wrote Keith Burris, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s executive editor, in an op-ed defending his newspaper’s decision.
For some long-standing journalists and journalism professors, this question of objectivity or perceived objectivity is besides the point. The focus needs to be on practice.
“There is no such thing as ‘objectivity,’” David A. Kaplan, an adjunct faculty member teaching journalistic ethics at NYU and CUNY, wrote in an email.
He later added that “good journalists do need to be fair, they do need to be balanced when balance is called for, and they should not become participants in the matters they’re covering.”
Mathew Ingram, the chief digital writer at Columbia Journalism Review, stressed in a phone interview that anyone who turns anything people say or write into an “information product” could be conceivably called journalists. In fact, Ingram said that when journalism got its start, journalists usually blended their reporting with opinion. The contemporary tradition of journalistic objectivity is a 20th-century invention.
“I think the more important question is: are you a good journalist?” he said.
Police kettling group from Fort Greene Park now at the intersection of Boerum Pl and Brooklyn Bridge Blvd.— NYC Protest Updates 2020 (@protest_nyc) October 28, 2020
NYPD making multiple arrests, grabbing people even while they attempt to leave the scene. A woman cries out, “Where are you taking my husband?” pic.twitter.com/6C2l1QpMSf
Nora Quinlan of @Protest_NYC believes she and co-editors are “good” journalists focused on verification, on-the-ground reporting and care for their sources. However, she can’t say for certain whether she would consider herself part of the widespread movement that continues in the city’s five boroughs.
“I think in retrospect I will see our coverage as maybe a part of it?” she said. “It’s really hard to say.”