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In a live video discussion with readers on Tuesday, Times journalists who are covering the protests across the country talked about the confluence of issues that have led to this point, what they’ve witnessed on the streets, the impact of cellphone videos and how they do their work as reporters. The event, which included questions from readers, was moderated by Jamie Stockwell, national deputy editor, and featured Audra Burch, national enterprise correspondent; John Eligon, national correspondent covering race; and Richard Fausset, Atlanta bureau chief. Here are edited excerpts.
How do demonstrators in Minneapolis feel about how the protests are going?
JOHN ELIGON A lot of protesters are frustrated because they said that the way police are confronting them in the protests only exemplifies why they need to protest. We talked about kneeling peacefully. No matter how they go about it, it just feels like the same story keeps repeating itself. And that is why a lot of them feel that they need to continue to get out on the streets. And you see these things spreading across the country.
What brought us to this moment as a country?
AUDRA BURCH I wanted to hear these voices on the ground and speak with them. Every single one of them talked about this idea of justice for George Floyd. But there was another part to this story. That this is part of a long line of violence against African-Americans, that black lives don’t have the value of other people’s in this nation. A protester asked me to think about what it must feel like to go about your day every day, and to feel like your race is the thing that people define you by. And to feel like you don’t have the same opportunities as others because you’re fighting this battle. And it’s a part of the American DNA. This horrific video, the allegations of police brutality and then a pandemic that has put 40 million people out of work — when you look at all of those things together, it’s not terribly surprising that we’re in this very explosive moment.
RICHARD FAUSSET You can feel it in the streets, this sense of burden upon burden. The people I’ve talked to here in Atlanta, people kept coming back to this essential point, which John and Audra mentioned. Maurice Carlos Ruffin, the acclaimed writer, wrote on Twitter: “I have four degrees, but I never take for granted that at any moment I could be brutalized like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery.”
How do you as reporters ensure that you remain objective covering this event right now?
BURCH I think our job here is to document this. And one of the things that I do is I read my stories out loud. I listen for my own words, to make sure they are coming across in the most neutral way. We have to report precisely what we see, and sometimes what we see is racism, and we need to call it.
The bystanders’ video of George Floyd told a very different story from the official police version. Can you talk a little bit about the power of raw videos and what they’ve laid bare in this era?
BURCH We all have the ability to press the button when we see something and to document it, right? And so you have this teenager who goes to this corner in Minneapolis, and this horrific death is unfolding, and she hits the button. And for 10 minutes you watch this man who pleads for his life. That’s hard to look away from, and it’s hard to dismiss. That is the power of the video. And what we know now is that these videos also act as sort of a central witness to cases and that they can be the engine behind social movements.
How has access to all of these videos changed how you report?
ELIGON I think they kind of shape the narrative. What made this case with George Floyd so impactful was that video. I remember the initial stories where it’s just a man in medical distress, and then the video comes out. It helps us be responsive to what the truth is.
FAUSSET In many cases, including the Floyd case, we’ve seen videos that contradict the official police narrative at the beginning of an investigation. And this opens up this bigger question of the moments in the judicial process in which people perhaps are not getting justice.
Many have accused the media of paying attention to black communities only when there is violence or crisis in them. Is there truth to this?
ELIGON One, for Audra, myself and Richard, who know the importance of covering stories, I think that’s not true because we do — my job is to cover race. I want to cover these stories, so even when this is not happening, I think we are covering those stories. Now, do they get the same attention as when this unrest happens? Absolutely not. I talked to different people who were protesting. They don’t condone it, but they realize the fact that America doesn’t pay attention unless it happens.
Click here to see the entire discussion and read about upcoming events.