(Il)Logic of Riot Coverage: Baltimore and Beyond
April 28, 2015

When violence and chaos erupt on city streets, media logic can lead to poor coverage on television. This frustrates viewers and journalists alike, but here is why this happens – and it isn’t because journalists aren’t doing their jobs.

First of all, when a big news event blows up, audience interest is huge. News outlets want to meet that interest. So news stations immediately devote more time to the event. But the size of the editorial staff is exactly the same, so they have to scramble to find things to fill that huge news hole in an incredibly short time. Sometimes this is literally minutes. So reporters often have to ad lib, producers have to find “experts” very quickly, and news organizations feel immense pressure to pass on all information without enough time to check  all the facts.

Unsurprisingly, these pressures lead to sensationalism and inaccuracy, more so than in the usual run of news. It frustrates audiences, who often feel uneasy or even downright scared if this is going on in their neighborhoods. It also frustrates journalists, who are struggling under immense pressure to get the story to the audience and still maintain professional standards. And while there is a wealth of information online, from pictures to videos to citizen comments, it is enormously difficult to verify and organize into news reports in a coherent way.

What is important to remember here is that most journalists and news outlets want to bring you the story in a professional way. They are not afraid to do so – ask producers and editors who are begging their reporters to stay safe and the journalists who are ignoring them. But what do you do when confronted with a burning building and a crowd of rioters in a major urban city? What does the audience have a right to know (everything)? What will lead to more violence (showing everything, perhaps)? How can you tell the story if you can’t get information out of either side? How do you give voice to all sides in a story when it is moving so fast?

Journalists deal with these types of challenges all of the time. It is just that they are dealing with them at warp speed in Baltimore right now. There is no perfect way to tell the story; there is no way to resolve the problem of conflict coverage. What journalists can and should do is to stick to their professional standards – avoid sensationalism, fact check, give time to different points of view in the story, and blend this into a professional package that gives the viewer critical information. This is something the BBC learned in the English riots in 2011 (also after the death of a black man after an encounter with the police) after it was criticized for sensationalist reporting. Easy to say, hard to do in an era of instant news demand.

Journalists walk a thin line. Avoid reporting on the dramatic events and you lose the audience. Too much coverage of the dramatic events and you can spark unrest. Local residents rely on the news media not just for important local information, but also for a sense of reassurance in a deeply troubling time. Should their kids go to school? Should they go to work? Is it safe to pick up their prescription? Indeed, the entire country also relies on TV during crises to provide reassurance that the center will hold, that order will be restored.

A balancing power lies in the hands of journalists and the audience itself. Journalists can – and do – show professionalism and restraint. In impossible and dangerous situations, they are our witnesses. They are not perfect, but they are deeply necessary. At the same time, the explosion of news outlets on television and online give the audience power as well. We can watch and follow those media outlets we feel are the most professional and ignore those that are more sensational. Sometimes we may be upset to be informed.

Today, we are all witnesses. People on the ground in Baltimore are empowered through pictures and video on their cellphones. People around the world can watch the story as it develops minute by minute. But bearing witness is not like watching a Hollywood disaster movie. It is also about being a citizen, being informed, but respecting that information should be used wisely. In that sense, we are all Baltimore.

Sarah Oates is a professor in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is a former journalist who now researches and writes on the relationship between media and democracy.