Oscar Grant Shooting Shows Us: The media voices in Oakland are missing in action

Oakland is one of the most diverse and interesting cities in the country, but its media outlets–newspaper and blogs alike–are woefully lacking.  I spent part of 2008 thinking about starting a community news site for Oakland because there was so little out there, and then moved on to other things.  Now, watching how poorly the local news/citizen journalism/media community is covering the Oscar Grant shooting, I see how lacking local voices are when it comes to the news (and believe me, I have been looking, hard).

Yo, here’s the dealio on what the local media is and is not covering:

Oakland Tribune, Inside Bay area, the local Oakland newspaper owned by the Media News Group, the 4th largest US newspaper conglomerate,  filed 12 stories about Grant‘s shooting, and picked up coverage from other sources as well. Lacking however, are the on the street and citizen media stories that would round out what looks like “crime beat” reporting.

The East Bay Express, the local alt paper,  has filed at least six stories on the Oscar Grant shooting and the subsequent protests as the story has evolved. Coverage is pretty pro-forma, but this paper offers the  most consistent local voice.

Farmer Joe’s & Friends, the blog for the local Fruitvale grocery where Grant worked as a butcher’s assistant has a nice post remembering him. “Oscar, I will miss your smiling face behind that meat counter at Joe’s. No words can express my sense of loss and outrage at what has happened.”

The Oakbook, the Oakland web site whose founder Alex Gronke  recently  got funding as an individual  from participants in Spot.Us, a Knight News Challenge community journalism project run by David Cohn, has one (!) story on the topic, focusing on the “vandals” who destroyed property on 17th street when protests got out of hand on January 7th. Given this is supposed to be the biggest (and best?) local Oaktown web site, the lack of more coverage is surprising.

Future Oakland says it covers decisions and controversies that shape the future. Clearly, it doesn’t think the Oscar Grant story is relevant; their one post acts annoyed at the outcry and implies that rioting negates murder: “Just as vandalizing Creative African Braids and the charming shops along 17th Street is not justice, holding Oakland responsible for the actions of a regional body that happens to be headquartered in a Lake Merritt high-rise is unfair.” Big whoop.

A better Oakland: This site about Oakland has no original posts about the Oscar Grant incident, but it does have links to San Francisco coverage. It invites readers to comment on events and provides links to Bay area coverage, including Oakland resident Thomas Hawk’s on-scene photos, and to a forum.

And then there are the blogs that are supposedly about Oakland, but exist in parallel universes where Oscar Grant’s death is never mentioned, not at all:

No coverage at all:

Note: I made some edits to this post as of Jan. 15th, and would like to note that some of the blogs I highlighted as lacking coverage posted coverage after this post went live. And, in fact, there was additional, very heartfelt coverage, later in the week.  It’s also worth noting that the video and photography coverage on flickr and youtube was fulsome and fantastic, with lots of commentary on some photos.

Also, its worth noting that loyal fans of the current Oaktown media scene gave coverage by the blogs they favor an A, thought it was terrific. Since it is important to listen to different perspectives and treat them with respect, it is important to me to note that.

Finally, I removed the grades from individual publishing sources; they were quite wounding to people, and since so many blogs are labors of love and heroic effort, they struck the wrong note.  My intent was not to pass judgement on any specific blog, and I regret giving that impression to anyone, but to share my view that coverage of Oakland events by Oakland community members and Oakland news outlets could be richer, better, stronger and more diverse than it is today. While I have learned from the discussion and posts, I hope the outpouring of documentation, writing and opinion around Oscar Grant’s shooting keeps more people online, engaged and communicating where we can read them.

Latest Comments

  1. David Cohn says:

    Excellent post Susan…. albeit a bummer of a topic.
    I am starting to think more and more about the East Bay as a greatly undeserved community by the media.
    I am hoping that the OakBook’s spot.us pitch, which is an investigation into the Oakland PD, will touch on the current events. I’m sure it will – as this is now a big example of the story and why it was funded by citizens in the first place.
    The piece probably won’t be finished for some time – but I hope when it is, that it touches on some of the issues that are obviously poignant in the Oakland community right now.

  2. Lisa Williams says:

    Susan — What about Oakland Focus? I was surprised at the lack of coverage too, which is why I went looking. I wrote about it here. I was going to write an extended comment here, but I decided it really merited its own entry here.
    BTW, I sent you a mail, probably yesterday, on this – did you get it? I’ve been having some problems with outgoing mail from my domain being marked as spam. LMK.

  3. Lane Hartwell says:

    Susan, there is no money it.
    Newspapers and reputable news sites have no money and are cutting staff. Creative Commons and “citizen journalism” such as bloggers and Flickr photographers, who give their creative works away for nothing are making it hard for people who want to do this as a living. Bloggers routinely use Flickr like a free stock site and use photos that are marked all rights reserved without permission. Photoshelter, a site that was offering alternatives to places like Getty and AP for buying stock photography, had to close down that portion of their site because it wasn’t working.
    I’m curious, who is the photographer that shot the image that you used here?
    I looked for a photo credit, couldn’t see one. I also see that you license this blog under CC, so essentially you’ve put that photographer’s work up for grabs to others without the copyright holder’s permission.
    I was out at the riots on Wednesday and I shot, and risked my safety to do so. I ran into one photographer who decided to go home after the crowd turned on him and after failing to steal his camera, hit him. There are threats being made to journalists on indybay.org, where they are calling reporters “snitches” and advocating violence or intimidation against anyone with a press pass. The photographer I ran into was not a member of the media, so it’s clear to me that pretty much anyone with a camera is essentially a target now. Why in the world would someone want to put themselves and their expensive equipment at risk, only to have their images stolen, or no outlets available where they can sell them to?
    You give an “F” to the “local people with skills who live in Oakland, for failure to use the new online tools to give voice to community.” I saw the people of Oakland and San Francisco out there, with their cameras and tiny video recorders, documenting. You chide outlets for picking up coverage from other media outlets, but isn’t that kind of exactly what you are doing here? Were you there using your skills and your blog to tell the story? You give credit to someone like Thomas Hawk who is a high paid professional businessman and hobbyist photographer kudos. He’s in a position where he can leave the office early and head out to take pictures then give them away for free on Flickr. If his camera gets smashed, he can easily buy a new one. He’s more of a voyeur than a citizen journalist, which is fine, but his hobby hurts those who are serious about what they do and are happy to put themselves out there to document and report the stories.
    Journalists need to eat and pay rent like everyone else. Pay people for the work they do, make it worth their while to put themselves in harm’s way to tell the stories that need to get out there. Cameras and computers and the tools of the journalist’s trade don’t grow on trees.

  4. Susan Mernit says:

    Lane, you make some very good points and I don’t disagree about the need for photogs to protect their work, the little money in journalism, and so on. However, the point I was trying to make that in Oakland, unlike some other parts of the Bay area, citizens are not blogging about their local experiences, news and community. If not for the photographers who posted to flickr, and a couple of people twittering, we would have no record by local citizens of the protests and the riot. Given that blogging software is free and easy to use, this seems like a waste, and that’s where the F gets awarded–to myself, as well as to others.

  5. inadvertentgardener.wordpress.com says:

    Susan, it is indeed a bummer of a topic, and I agree that citizen, on-the-ground journalism is a powerful thing, but also think that to grade the entire Oakland blogosphere AND online versions of print media that harshly is somewhat unfair.
    For example, at Living in the O, Becks not only published a first-hand report from someone who was in the protest group, but also is in the process of using grassroots data collection to pull together a list of the local businesses affected by the vandalism on Wednesday night with the goal of downtown and other Oakland residents using that list to patronize those businesses and show support in the wake of the riots. That’s not just interesting front-line coverage, but she’s using it for further good.
    You graded A Better Oakland a D on VSmoothe’s riot coverage, and yes, her coverage consists of a round-up of links. However, look a little closer at her blog, and you’ll note that she’s actually on hiatus right now — her round-up is despite that, and was a direct response to her recognizing the need to address the issue in some way, even just through links, on her blog, and to provide a forum for people to discuss the riots through the comments. I think that’s a valuable use of the technology, even if she’s not writing a full-blown blog post.
    Along with Thomas Hawk, others were out on the streets taking pictures and documenting. I’m an Oakland blogger (fairly new, but still, I’m part of the group), but my primary blog focuses on food and food access issues and gardening…none of which really ties to the riots, so I did not cover them there. But I have a camera, and my photos were picked up by sfist.com and Flickr.com and used to draw attention to what happened. In fact, one of my photos, as of 2:45 pm today, had been viewed more than 53,000 times in the less than 48 hours since I took it, and those viewings sparked intense debate in the comments for the photo.
    As far as I’m concerned, I could not be more pleased with how I used the technological tools at my disposal to get the word out about the riots to a substantial number of people all around the world, and the public and private reactions to the work were overwhelming and quite gratifying.
    The DTO might not have posted any coverage before your post went up, but there is a post there now. And while I agree with you that the Trib’s coverage was very crime-reporter in style, that was actually what I go to my local paper to find, and I very much appreciated their constant updates throughout the day yesterday — even if they were short, they still kept me very connected to the story.
    No, the voices of Oakland may not be consistent, nor utterly comprehensive. But to grade them this harshly without looking at a broader context strikes me as unfair and without a spirit of community.

  6. inadvertentgardener.wordpress.com says:

    I’ve just posted my comment, but now am reading Lane’s comment, and want to absolutely agree with what she had to say, as well. Lane’s photos from the event are some of the other excellent images on Flickr.
    I hadn’t given thought to what she said about the photo you ran with the story, Susan, but Lane is absolutely right. Who took that photo? If it was you, then no worries, but I am curious as to why, otherwise, it’s posted with no credit given to the original source and/or photographer. Lane, glad you raised that question.

  7. Lisa Williams says:

    I just want to requote this from Lane’s comment, and give a brief response:

    You give credit to someone like Thomas Hawk who is a high paid professional businessman and hobbyist photographer kudos. He’s in a position where he can leave the office early and head out to take pictures then give them away for free on Flickr. If his camera gets smashed, he can easily buy a new one. He’s more of a voyeur than a citizen journalist, which is fine, but his hobby hurts those who are serious about what they do and are happy to put themselves out there to document and report the stories.

    Uh, wow.
    Back when I did on the ground reporting for my local town, this is precisely how my work was devalued, as that of a “hobbyist.” To give credence only to the work that our current system rewards with money is to endorse that system, and devalues the important contributions of other “hobbyists” who didn’t get paid to do work they felt passionately about. Let’s pause to note a few of those hobbyists and their contributions, like, oh, say…Thomas Jefferson, who didn’t get a dime to draft the Declaration of Independence.
    The other problem with devaluing the work of people based on whether the current system gives them money to do it is that the current system is inextricably tied up with biases that work against women and people of color. Right up there with the dismissive “hobbyist” was “housewife” – though I never stopped working for money, it was assumed that some other sugar daddy, domestic or corporate was the only (and in their view, not legitimate) source of my efforts. As someone who works in a barely heated office in February in New England while wearing a hat to do work I actually think matters, I can only say that I reject this analysis of whose work “counts.”

  8. Michael Biven says:

    I believe you have limited your view on this by focusing on only blogs while dismissing the discussions that took place on services like Flickr, Twitter, Brightkite and Youtube. While out shooting and taking video with Lane we saw people from all sides (protesters, rioters, press, by-standers and police) each taking their own record of what happened. You can’t expect people to fulfill the role of a journalist just because they can take a picture, write a sentence or record video.
    That would be no different than myself (a former fireman) expecting you to put out a fire just because you have a fire extinguisher.

  9. Cameron says:

    I’m not an Oakland resident, so I can’t appreciate your sense of urgency at the same gut level. Having said that, I do wonder what exactly you were looking for. The basic facts of the shooting and subsequent protest and riot seem to have been both adequately reported (in a completely acceptable professional crime beat fashion) and extensively documented and commented on through photographs, videos, news stories, and the blog entries that you disparage above.
    In fact, your comments lead me to ask if what you’re really searching for is a chorus of voices who share both your level of outrage and opinions on this horrible episode. For example, the post at Future Oakland that you excoriate raises completely valid questions about how Oakland is prioritizing scarce police resources and whether or not the department was adequately prepared to deal with the protests and eventual riot. And really, giving a grocery store blog a “C” for posting a heartfelt, if simple, memoriam feels like either condescension or shooting fish in a barrel.
    Finally, even though your Google Fu is likely very strong, I find this statement rather amazing to contemplate: “In Oakland, unlike some other parts of the Bay area, citizens are not blogging about their local experiences, news and community.” Given the logical size of the Internet, your confidence is breathtaking.

  10. Susan Mernit says:

    Thanks for this vibrant discussion, everyone. A couple of points from my perspective:
    Michael, I was an avid consumer and student of the flickr photos, the tweets and the YouTube posts around the protests related to Oscar Grant’s murder. But I do not believe that most mainstream people know how to avail themselves of all of those resources, particularly twitter and flickr, so my piece focused on blogs and news outlets. I did not mean to imply that these other formats were lacking, but express surprise and disappointment that there are not more blogs in Oakland that consistently focus on news and neighborhood events and issues.
    However, I disagree that people who blog need to fulfill the roles of journalists to offer value; some of the most insightful information–as opposed to straight, factual reportage–that I have read comes from people who are in the middle of an event and have feelings and observations to share. Why deny the authenticity to writers you offer to photogs–unless you think only professional photos have value.
    Inadvertent gardener, you took great photos, as did Lane, and they communicated much. And if you think Oakland media deserves an A for what they have done, I am happy for you–but I think there is great untapped insight, energy and experience that could be released if there were more people who chose to blog and use publishing platforms as communication tools.

  11. Susan Mernit says:

    Cam, my experience is that blogging provides so much rich, additional information and perspectives that I notice that Oakland is not as rich in blogs as I wished it was, and that this particular incident was not better covered by citizen journalists than it was in the mainstream press. If the mainstream press is the definitive source for you, then we truly have different expectations.
    My “breathtaking confidence” is actually just 2 months of collecting data and links for as many Oakland and East Bay local blogs as possible in my newsreader and via Google blog search and then going back and checking the list as I became aware of what had happened with Oscar Grant. There’s another newly refreshed list at http://placeblogger.com/blog/oakland and as you can see, it too is fairly limited.

  12. Justine Greer says:

    If you’ve been spending two months collecting data and links for Oakland blogs and have been actively looking for coverage on Grant and this is what you’ve come up with, then you aren’t very good at your job. There are a huge number of posts by locals bloggers that you overlooked. Ironically, you would have known about all of them if you had read the posting on A Better Oakland, a blog you ignorantly insult – where the blogger did an incredible job of compiling the work of local writers fo everyone to see. Its amazing to me that you would give the best and most devoted blogger in Oakland a “D” when she actually went out of her way to COME BACK DURING VACATION to post about it and in doing so, completed a task that you couldn’t handle. Its crazy you would damn a blog about a grocery store for not covering riots in a totally different neighborhood! And why do you talk about East Bay Outtakes as if its a separate blog when its really just a facet of MediaNews that you already wrote about? And it’s insane that you completely ignored Living in the O’s excellent citizen activism. I give Susan Mernit an F for her lazy and irresponsible critique of Oakland blogs.

  13. Mike Spencer says:

    Hi Susan,
    Your broadsides are a little off base. Your standard seems to be that if a blogger cannot commit CNN-like detailed, on-the-street coverage than the outlet sucks. Your criticism is more relevant for the Oakland Tribune, which is supposed to be the daily paper of record. Expecting breathy on the scene coverage from a handful of mom-and-pop or lone wolf bloggers is not realistic. (Wait, let me give the kid his bottle then grab my camera and head on down to the riot….) The local blogs don’t pretend to be your go to source for spot news.
    I take something different from each blog. Abetteroakland is an incredible forum and clearhinghouse for opinions, with some great news. Oakbook is eclectic and does not pretend to be about breaking news.
    I just read the New York Times article and it was very surface. An analogy would be like you expecting great arts coverage from ESPN. Go back to the drawing board.

  14. Melissa Gira Grant says:

    The two best sources of information on what what down during the protests and riots in Oakland, that I cam across, are totally old-school blogging: personal, urgent, written in the heat of the moment. I read the CNN and Chronicle coverage, too, but these are the stories that had that texture to them it seems Susan is asking for more of:
    I found out about these bloggers’ stories over Twitter, Tumblr, and LiveJournal.
    As to the discussion of legitimacy, professionalism, and reach of citizen media, I don’t have much to offer. What did strike me in your initial critique of the Oakland citizen media landscape — as far as you have researched — is the role of institutional racism and classism in perpetuating a digital divide, even (and especially) in new media. We’re asking, “Where are the blogs about X?” but we’re really also asking, “Where are the X bloggers?” Let’s assume they’re out there, and their voices just aren’t as loud as what most people take for “loud” in the blogosphere. Let’s assume the desire to tell stories is there. That much discussion took place in comments on Flickr and YouTube, and not in dedicated blog posts, says something about how reporting has to change: it’s as much about what happens after we publish as the publishing.

  15. Michael Biven says:

    Maybe it wasn’t you that is being excoriated, but the other way around?
    When I talked about fulfilling the role of a journalist one point I was trying to make was not everyone with a website wants to be a journalist or blogger. The other was that I would hope we would be wanting more reasonable, objective and unique view points instead of a swarm of rumor and gossip. Accusations such as “That was murder” before anything goes to trial do not belong in any publication that is available to such a large audience.
    I’m happy to see people comment on events, but your criticism on what you see to be a lack of local bloggers covering what happened are way off-base. The comments in this post appear to support the idea that the coverage and quality of local bloggers covering the aftermath of Oscar Grant’s death receive an A.

  16. Zoe Renton says:

    Susan, you were totally off the mark with your comments and perspective here. If you’re not happy with the Oakland blogging community we are happy for you to leave.
    What is your true motive here??? Is it ultruistic or have you got some citizen journalism “project” that you will launch to fix these shortcomings.
    An apology would be a start.

  17. Lane Hartwell says:

    @Lisa William:
    Hi Lisa,
    I am not devaluing Thomas’ work by saying that he’s a hobbyist, just pointing out that you can’t count on, nor would you want to count on people like him to do accurate and reliable reporting of news.
    As Michael pointed out, it’s important to have professionals who at least have a code of ethics they follow, to ensure that we are getting a relatively fair and accurate picture of things.
    For example, Susan Mernit herself in an earlier blog post about Oscar Grant said “Is this real footage of the police at BART restraining and then shooting Oscar Grant? Oakland police cop watch blog says so on Indybay.. Damn, if this is real footage, I’m sorry I missed the protests, That was murder.”
    “That was murder?” When did Susan Mernit get appointed judge and jury? She saw a video on Indybay and opines that Oscar Grant’s shooting was murder, and somehow that’s a detailed enough investigation on her part to draw that conclusion. Imagine if the Chronicle or CNN reported like that. Imagine if you were the person being reported on. Would you want a trial by media, or a trial in a court of law?
    I have seen, and personally experienced the brunt of bloggers who have relied on other people’s accounts rather than going out into the story, gathering their own information and making sure it’s factual. But when you ask or expect for accountability on their part they say “I’m not a journalist, I’m a blogger”. But at the same time, bloggers feel slighted if you suggest that they aren’t really a reliable source. And the lines are becoming even blurrier as mainstream media are using more bloggers, “citizen journalists” and photographers to provide online content for their sites.
    I’m all for people using blogs and flickr to share their personal opinions on current events, and the two blogs that Melissa mentions above are good examples of that…they aren’t pretending to be unbiased, they state up front that it’s their opinion. But where does a site like Indybay.org fit into this? I’m not sure who is at the helm and would question anything that I read there. But others might not question their sources in the same way, and believe that if it’s on the internet, it must be true.

  18. theo konrad auer says:

    First off, A Better Oakland’s link roundup is far fairer than yours – providing much needed balance and perspective. Also it is easily the best Oakland based city politics blog the city has had in recent memory. It has broken many, many major stories before the print media did and almost always the facts presented within are more properly sourced and verified than our local newspapers.
    If your research was so thorough, you would know that fact – and also you would know that A better Oakland is on hiatus.
    The Oakbook is a new media news and content site that is edited and pays its reporters commensurate with the going rates in the industry. It is not a blog as I think you would define. I think that is abundantly(sp, I know) clear. Also, the local newspaper blogs you note are similar in tone and format. One of the newspaper blogs you mention is an nightlife one by Angela Wellman. Why would a nightlife blog cover a riot? Wellman was one of the best light in this, providing on the spot coverage of the riots for the print ed. of the Oakland Tribune. She had been in the LA riots as well which allowed for a unique perspective.
    I am The Oakbook’s art critic and correspondent and my work has appeared in mnay print as well as web based publications. I wrote an Op. Ed. for The Oakbook on all this and was at the protest in question. I would like it if you took the time and read the piece and saw the perspective of a life long Oaklander who knows some of the folks involved and was there.

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