One Person, One Media Image: How You Can Influence Social Change
The release of video showing the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in Chicago has generated national and international headlines, outrage, and demand for reform. It also generates a powerful example of media’s power to influence social change, says Davina Jones, Ph.D., communications expert, and director of the M.A. in Media and Communications program at Adler University.
We talked to Dr. Jones about the release and lessons that the video release holds for communicators as change agents—lessons central for students of the Media and Communications program at Adler.
Why Is the Release of the Police Shooting Video an Example of Social Change?
That video is the iconic media piece. Without the video, unless you’re in the know, we don’t even know the shooting took place. We don’t even know there should be some questions asked.
I researched how the video release came about, and learned that Brandon Smith was the freelance reporter who successfully petitioned the courts to release the police shooting. [The shooting of 17-year-old McDonald occurred in October 2014, and the video was released in November 2015. The police chief ultimately was fired, and the officer has been charged with first-degree murder.]
Brandon Smith’s successful petition to release a video launched a movement and brought nationwide attention to an already brewing issue. It is an example of how one media artifact—image, language, song, verbal, and nonverbal—can launch a movement.
Not only is it a big deal in Chicago, it fits into the larger narrative of whether there should be more police accountability, or is this bad rhetoric targeted toward or against police.
How can an individual strategically promote an image, even a cellphone image; how can you move that content piece; how can you access that media piece? Can you do it in a way that gets enough attention or awareness? That’s what happened with the release of this video.
These are the kinds of discussions we’d like to have—as an example of how one social movement is an example to another, one of these social movements, or to another existing social movement. How do you gain traction; what do you do?
Why Do You See the Brandon Smiths of the World As Examples to the Adler University Community, Your Students?
Anybody can initiate a movement; anybody can advocate. I think what makes Brandon so unique is that he’s not Anderson Cooper; he’s not Bill O’Reilly.
It’s a message that says anyone on the right day at the right moment with the right strategy can create awareness, as simple as that, whatever that awareness is: whether it’s for a shoeshine, whether it’s for more arts in the classroom, fewer presidential debates, more presidential debates, whatever. Anyone at the right moment with the right tools can maybe make that happen.
How Can Media Practitioners Act as Change Agents?
Understand the power of media—a picture, a video, a post, a testimony. As in the case of Brandon Smith, I imagine he understood that the video of McDonald’s shooting would say more than a manual script of the story. And he made the media artifact available to the public.
There’s no one path. I want students to explore the paths that we can take, investigate, and practice using media to create social change. We have a history of it, so it’s not new. What’s changing is that we have such easy access to it, but it’s not new.
The classic example is the civil rights movement, where there are iconic pictures of hoses being used on the protesters, and dogs being used to attack protesters in the South who are marching for civil rights. It’s just one picture, but without that picture, people in New York don’t know what’s happening. Without that picture, the world, or the nation, is not necessarily invited to know.
We have a history of what a picture can do. We have a history of what one speech can do. We have this history of what media means to a movement, but what’s changed is you don’t have to be a certified CNN or Fox News reporter. You can simply be an interested citizen or person. You can be a YouTuber; you can be a Facebooker; you can be a Twitterer, or you can be Joe Blow on the right day giving an interview.
How Common Are Independent Journalists, Who Act without the Shield of Mainstream Media?
Very common. We use our cellphones to capture entertaining or questionable acts at will. Our new ability to access and control media on our own terms has changed the world, and has made social movements more immediate in pace and scope.
How Successful Are Individuals Who Aren’t Part of Mainstream Media in Affecting Social Change? What Challenges Do They Face?
It is hit or miss. Others petitioned the courts as Brandon did—but why did he win the petition? Why does one post go viral, and another does not? We need to ask such questions, and create toolboxes to help answer and demonstrate desired outcomes to those questions.
Brandon Smith Sees Himself as a Muckraker. Is That an Important Trait for Today’s Media Change Agents?
Investigative journalism is a more formal term one could use. Yes, it is important because often it leads to research and discovery of issues that have so carefully been disguised.
How Are You Going to Encourage Students to Embrace an Issue, or Dig into Something That’s Not on the Surface?
As we invite students into the program, we’re acknowledging upfront that Adler as an institution is interested in social issues. So as you come in, we are immediately grooming a sense of awareness, and hoping that students bring their own sense of consciousness. Together, we build on that.
For example, if a student is interested in climate change, as a department, we’re going to say, “How can we explore this toolbox? What can we do to help you be a better, stronger, more effective advocate for climate change?”
We’re offering toolkits—these are some tools you can use; you have to try it. That’s what makes the difference. A surgeon understands that when you go into surgery, you have to have more than one tool. Very often, we’re used to the one tool that we know.
What Are Some Other Examples of Activism?
One does not have to be a journalist, or in journalism to participate in activism.
- The Ice Bucket Challenge. What a brilliant strategy, to come up with the Ice Bucket Challenge, and make it virtual so that anybody in the world can participate. We are watching our favorite football game of the week, and in the middle of the football game, there’s an Ice Bucket Challenge. Someone working for a nonprofit company could ask: How do we get the word out about our company? We want to raise money for this disease. We want to raise money for this cause. How do we do that?
What Are Some International Instances Where Social Media Affected Some Type of Change?
- The attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Without traditional media, without social media, would we have had that kind of massive response—people from around the world committed in solidarity to support that this is not what we stand for in humanity? They were able to put that march together so quickly, and it included so many, including world leaders. [The march took place four days after the January 7, 2015, attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris, in which 11 people were killed. The phrase Je suis Charlie became a common slogan of support.]
- Islamic State group. I hate to say this, but ISIS has been very successful in using media, social media and the like, to advance its cause. Globally, how do we compete with that? We’re trying to figure that out. Even our government is having a difficult time keeping up with ISIS, because technology, and the way in which ISIS uses media, is so sophisticated.
- Syrian refugees are fleeing their homes and wanting to travel to other parts of the world. Media, social media in particular, has been very instrumental, in many ways, when the migrants are trying to navigate from one part of a country to another. [More than 4 million Syrians are fleeing violence from five years of civil war, a collapsed infrastructure, and to protect their children from being recruited as fighters.]
This is so essential for citizens. Not every country has this notion of free press in the way that we do. Brandon Smith was able to petition for the release of the Laquan McDonald video, but you might not be able to petition that way in another country. It’s not a matter of being able to petition for it, but a matter of simply being able to capture it.
We’re not interested in telling students what to think, or what issues they should be concerned about. We are saying, “What are you concerned about? How can we help you be more efficient at articulating those concerns, and inviting people to share in those concerns, and do something about those concerns?” So this could be domestic violence. The list is endless in terms of what one’s concerns may be.Related resources
- "Brandon Smith’s website"
- Jeremey Borden, "How a little-known, Uber-driving freelancer brought the lawsuit that forced Chicago to release a police shooting video," Columbia Journalism Review