How to Differentiate a Movement From a Moment, According to Leading Journalists

Image courtesy of Eddie Codel

Several notable journalists and experts delved deep into a discussion over the tipping point between an event being an isolated moment in history and becoming a movement that affects sustained change, during a virtual forum on the intersection of news and protest this past summer hosted on Oct. 8. 

The panel, hosted by George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, was moderated by GWU professors Jesse J. Holland and David Karpf. The panel featured journalists who covered this summer’s protests against police brutality and experts in communications and law.

Kristen Grimm of Spitfire Strategies, a strategic communications firm, admitted, “It’s really hard to plan out whether it’s going to be a moment or a movement.” 

Protests and movements, such as those that arose this past summer in response to the killing of George Floyd, are nothing this country hasn’t seen before. While these responses to police brutality are not new, journalists and the news media take on the critical role of distinguishing between a moment and a movement.

Omar Jimenez, a CNN correspondent, has covered police brutality since Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore in 2015. Multiple factors were in play in distinguishing between a moment or a movement this summer, according to Jimenez.

“This was the first time where my white friends who I have known my entire life, since fourth grade, love them to death, had questions about race relations. This was the first year that happened,” Jimenez said. “That to me went, ‘Okay, this was different.’” 

While Elisa Massimino, the chair of human rights at Georgetown University’s law school, agreed with Jimenez on differentiating between a moment and a movement, she added that two important factors include having an actual target of something to accomplish and being able to see concrete data as to whether or not that target is being reached.

“There is some rudimentary data to suggest that these protests by themselves, even if we stopped right now, had an impact in the way white people in the United States are thinking about the problem of police violence, just in the questions they’re asking, the things they’re googling. That’s something we can actually measure,” Massimino said.

She went on to explain her take on turning these critical moments into legitimate movements.

“From my perspective, how you turn a moment, however long it is, into a real movement and how do you judge whether that’s working is having a hard target of something you’re trying to accomplish. Then, you see how you’re hitting benchmarks on a strategy to get there,” Massimino continued. 

While concrete data is just one of the factors in differentiating moments and movements, others suggest it can also be determined by the amount of pressure put on people within society to speak up as a result of such injustices. 

“Suddenly, companies who used to not have to weigh in at all, literally needed to have anti-racist statements within twenty-four hours. It was just a completely different pressure. Black Lives Matter public opinion in June went up twenty-six points. Public opinion doesn’t move that fast,” said Grimm.

Companies were not the only ones coming out with anti-racist statements. Many professional sports teams took to Twitter to share their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Some of these teams included the Toronto Maple Leafs of the NHL, calling Black Lives Matter, “a movement, not a moment,” similar to many of the panelists’ views.

This distinction between moments and movements has been a discussion among experts for years. Liz Reich, an opinion contributor for The Hill, wrote in 2017: “As a scholar of black representation and political movements, it’s clear to me that if we’re worried about how to create social and political change, we must turn back to Black Lives Matter and its model of organizing.”

As to why this summer was substantially different than those in the past and who in particular contributed to this uprising, Massimino put it simply: “Trump.”

“Trump has made this about who we are as a country,” Massimino continued. “It’s not simply now about tweaking a thing that has to do with policing and criminal justice. It is a question about who we are and that invests this with a lot more meaning and importance that crosses all kinds of boundaries that were hard to cross if you tried to engineer a campaign like this.” 

While these racial injustices remain prominent in today’s society, Jimenez said he believes the news industry has made significant progress in seeing things from a different lens as a result of this past summer. 

“I think before we had seen each of these individual stories as moments. ‘Oh Kenosha is having a moment, Minneapolis is having a moment.’ But I think for the first time we’re starting to see some of these string together and you can see it as a cohesive movement,” Jimenez said. “Even just being able to have that perspective as a reporter is one that I think is becoming more common within the industry and I think it’s an important step that we made this year.”

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