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It’s been a very challenging week for newsrooms. It’s been particularly difficult for Black journalists whose personal experiences with systemic racism are colliding with the degradation of the profession. We recognize and empathize as a newsroom and as Americans that Black lives matter, and journalism is not a crime.

Thursdays with First Draft

Our Thursday webinar series continues today with open discussions on how reporters are covering the nationwide unrest. We want to provide our community an opportunity to share their challenges, how they’re feeling and what’s been working for them. We’ll also share what we’ve been seeing around the outside agitator narratives, “Cop-aganda,”and more. Join us at 5 p.m. EDT to participate in the discussion, ask questions, and share what’s happening in your newsroom right now.

Unrest in America

A mural honoring George Floyd, the man who was killed by Minneapolis police on May 25. Photo: Xena Goldman.

George Floyd’s death by Minneapolis police on Memorial Day has created both civil unrest and violent clashes in all 50 states. Over the past few days, different communities have been blamed for creating or exacerbating the situation, from Antifa, “Boogaloo” members, white supremacists and Russian trolls. "George Soros" was a trending term over the weekend on Twitter as people claimed he funded protesters; this has been fueled by an old video re-emerging online of a 2017 interview with a protester who claimed to be paid by Soros. The original interviewer has described the man as “obviously trolling.”

Evidence of “outside agitators” at different protests is difficult to investigate. An NBC News report from the weekend describes the competing narratives and how they are playing out. Ultimately, as black civil rights activists have stressed, questions raised about outside agitators could hurt the intentions and motivations of those actually supporting the George Floyd protest action, and devalue their concerns.

Important to note

The "outside agitators" narrative illustrates how difficult it is to address misinformation. First Draft is documenting the “outside agitators” phenomenon as the narratives evolve. The current focus of outside actors is about sightings of "random bricks.” New York Police Commissioner Dermot Shea tweeted that bricks were being distributed by organized looters, and the White House Twitter account echoed this claim.

There is no evidence that organized looters are responsible for the bricks. In Boston, a video surfaced of police officers unloading bricks from a truck. The narration of the video implied it was a move intended to escalate the protests, however, Northeastern University Police Department claims that is not the case.

Webinar discussion item: How are your newsrooms dealing with the claims of outside agitators? What conversations have you had about the risks and benefits of addressing this narrative?

Protest reporting tips

  • Avoid amplifying claims that protests are subject to “outside agitators” (e.g. Antifa, George Soros, white supremacists, Russian trolls) without hard evidence. Look at the arrests, and confirm whether the majority of them were local residents. If a protest had a permit, inquire who submitted it.

  • Verify claims by law enforcement as you would any other statements. The headline on this New York Post article quotes a "police source" who makes a guess that $2.4 million in watches were stolen from a store. A store spokesperson is quoted in the following paragraph that nothing was taken.

  • Photos and videos of protests on social media can be misleading and easily taken out of context. If a protest looks large, or alternatively small, try to verify actual numbers on the ground. If it appears violent, consider whether or not this represents the minority of participants. If law enforcement are posting photos “taking a knee,” check to see if there were reports of aggression that followed.

  • Add search terms like “me,” “my,” and “I” to your Twitter and YouTube searches to look for eyewitness sources at an event:

(michigan OR detroit) AND (protest OR riot OR police) AND (me OR my OR I OR we OR us OR our) 

Note: verify that these sources were present at the event

  • Be sure to include location-specific terminology in your search for localized accounts, such as state, city, town, etc. Locally owned businesses instead of national-chain stores can also pinpoint personal stories more effectively.  

  • Protect your sources: Visibility does not always promote safety, and photos of protesters can lead to harm. Edward Crawford was the subject of an iconic photo from the Ferguson, MO., protests, and he died under mysterious circumstances.

Reporting Fellows update

First Draft has five reporting fellows based in Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, and most tracked news and online commentary related to the anti-police brutality protests this past week.

Sandra Fish in Colorado reports:
  • On Tuesday, the Yuma Pioneer carried an announcement from the city asking potential protesters to be peaceful and respectful, and to wear masks and practice social distancing. In the comment section, people argued over claims that outsiders would be bused into the protest. But as the Pioneer later noted, about 60 people protested peacefully, none of them coming on buses from elsewhere.
Damon Scott in Florida reports:
  • There’s been an increase in misinformation that conflates the protests with a wider conspiracy theory that the demonstrations are part of an insurgency and a power grab by the president, promulgated by the left and those against Trump. From the right, some users suggest that the protests are a way to prolong lockdowns and quarantine. 
Shana Black in Ohio reports:
  • Confusion is mounting about whether reporters in Ohio are allowed to be out given the new curfews. After a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter was arrested on Monday, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson later stated that press would be able to enter the downtown area to report, but had to stay “inside their place of business.” Following a tweet from the ACLU of Ohio that stated this action was unconstitutional, Jackson adjusted his position to say credentialed media could report freely. However, the police disagreed, and turned reporters away from the Justice Center.

The U.S. 2020 Student Network

First Draft’s all-volunteer U.S. 2020 Student Network is researching, monitoring and verifying online information in support of our research leading up to the November election. When they find misinformation or disinformation that could be helpful to reporting, we will make the connection with a local newsroom partner. Interested students should fill out this form.

See you tonight at 5 EDT,
The First Draft Team

Today's First Draft 2020 newsletter is written and compiled by Shana Black, Keenan Chen, Sandra Fish, Jacquelyn Mason, Aimee Rinehart, Damon Scott, Diara J. Townes, Shaydanay Urbani, and Madelyn Webb.

If you have missed any of our previous newsletters, or just want a refresher, here’s our archive. And please invite your colleagues to sign up to this newsletter.
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