During the last year's Trump rallies and Black Lives Matter protests across a polarized America, writers and videographers not aligned with traditional news organizations have emerged as valuable — if partisan — news sources. Their Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and livestreams on websites like Twitch and DLive have attracted hundreds of thousands of followers looking for on-the-ground, up-to-the-minute reporting. Many have used their streams to raise money for the causes they cover.
As the lines have blurred between advocacy journalism and activism, this breed of reporter, which has a deep distrust of the mainstream media, has increasingly faced arrest and censorship, culminating in a crackdown after the Capitol siege that left some arrested, others without online platforms. The attack on the Capitol also raised questions about who is considered a journalist, and whether the 1st Amendment applies when the law is broken.
"Not everyone qualifies as a journalist," said David Hudson, an assistant law professor at Nashville's Belmont University and a 1st Amendment fellow at the nonprofit Freedom Forum. "Even in the age of citizen journalism and participatory journalism — and no doubt there have been some valuable contributions from some citizen journalists — there has to be some limit."
Hudson said the law considers someone a journalist "if they are engaged in investigative reporting, gathering news, and have the intent to disseminate such information to the public." But the law is unclear on where to draw the line between advocacy and reporting. Some courts have found bloggers to be journalists, while others haven't.
"At some point, we do need to address who exactly qualifies," he said.
Allissa Richardson chronicled the evolution of protest coverage last year in her book "Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, & the New Protest #Journalism."
"The very best citizen journalists now have huge followings in their own right," said Richardson, an assistant professor of communication and journalism at USC's Annenberg School. "They often have tens of thousands of followers on Instagram and TikTok. On the ground though, they may appear to be indistinguishable from protesters."
Richardson said she would recognize those like NeCarlo who ventured inside the Capitol as journalists, "especially if they have established livestreams and dedicated channels." Like mainstream counterparts, they work in an increasingly hostile environment where they may be assaulted by police.
"Citizen journalists have taken on even more of a role as the first responders of the profession," Richardson said, supplying photos and videos that are then contextualized by mainstream media. "This is serious, dangerous work for the unidentified citizen journalist."
While covering Black Lives Matter protests after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., last fall, C.J. Halliburton livestreamed the shooting of three protesters by 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, pausing to render first aid. Rittenhouse has since been charged in connection with the shooting, and Halliburton's footage was submitted as evidence.