Several days ago I read an interview on Poynter with a guy named Todd Gitlin. He said that the media's coverage of Occupy Wall Street was lazy and knee-jerk and that journalists weren't digging very deep.
Poynter identified the guy as a liberal so it's clear to see that he has something to gain from critiquing the coverage of what appears to be, at least in part, a liberal movement. Still, I read the article and thought: What can I, as a journalist, do to improve the coverage of Occupy Wall Street? Not to make them look better or worse, of course, but to portray the movement more accurately.
I came up with a plan. I'd take a whiteboard down to Occupy Portland and ask people to write on the board why they were there. Then I'd take their picture. Simple.
On October 12, 2011, I went to Chapman Square and Lownsdale Square where the Occupy Portland protests were taking place. I took my whiteboard and a camera. On the whiteboard I'd taped a piece of paper that said "I'm here because:".
I started off with a kid who told me he was 21 years old. He was squatting on the ground talking to an older man when I came up and told them about what I was doing. I said something along the lines of: "I'm curious why people are down here, so I'm asking them to write it down on this whiteboard so I can take a picture." Both the kid and the old man agreed.
The kid went first. I realized halfway through that I ought to get his name, too, so I asked him to write that on the bottom of the whiteboard. His name is Ian. I took his picture and then did the same with the old man.
I continued on like this for another couple hours. I wandered through the parks and the street that divided them and gave each person the same spiel. Most people obliged. I was turned down outright by three demonstrators, four police officers, and one cameraman. An older woman came up to me and asked me where she could donate to the cause. I told her where the information tent was and then asked her to write on the whiteboard. She turned me down. Another woman said she'd write on the whiteboard but wouldn't let me photograph her face. I excluded the photograph of her whiteboard from this album because she wasn't willing to show her face.
It became clear early on that I should have some sort of system for getting responses from a diverse group of people. The system I came up with is far from scientific, but it seemed to work for me. This is how it went: After I'd talked to someone who was white I'd look for someone who wasn't white. If that next person was a woman I'd look for a man. If that man looked really well dressed then I'd look for a grungy person next. If that grungy person was able-bodied I'd look for someone who appeared to be physically disabled. It went on like that, each time switching up a different attribute as I went from person to person.
More important than perceived race socio-economic status, or grunginess, I think, was how well or poorly they represented the movement. When I asked this guy to tell me why he was at Occupy Portland by writing on the whiteboard, the first thing he wrote was: "Drugs." I tried to take a picture but before I could he erased it and wrote something about being a pirate. I don't think there's much difference between telling people you're involved with Occupy Portland because of "drugs" or because of "being a good pirate."
While I was taking pictures and talking to people I kept wondering if it looked like I was supporting Occupy Portland. Just to be clear, I do not support Occupy Portland, nor do I not support Occupy Portland. My job as a journalist is simply to document what's going on. Still, I'll bet many of the people I talked to thought that I was trying to further the movement, to get their message out there. But I was, and am, just trying to understand.