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"It was kind of like the Twilight Zone": OSU student reflects on newscast's misrepresentation of peaceful protest

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OSU students and Stillwater Residents gather at the March for Black Lives on June 27, 2020 on Library Lawn in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Oklahoma State student Gregory Samuel was initially excited to be on the news.

He wants to get into politics when he grows up and knows how to advocate for change in his community, so when a friend told him he was featured on News 9 in Oklahoma City during the George Floyd protests, he was ecstatic.

“But then I saw the video and was like, that's completely inaccurate,” Samuel said. “Grossly misrepresented and not factual at all. 

“It was kind of like the Twilight Zone because I was so confused how it could be misinterpreted in such a drastic way.”

The news clip he saw was a video of News 9 reporter Jim Gardner misrepresenting the peaceful nature of the protest and singling out Samuel as someone inciting violence.

“That is not a protest,” Gardner said in the clip. “You can see them, they got the white “X’s” on their pants (referring to Samuel)… The people that had the rally today, you need to distance yourself away from these people at all.”

This reporting was in complete contrast to what actually happened. In reality, Samuel was encouraging peace and unity, not violence. In fact, he was simply handing water out to fellow protestors so they can stay hydrated during the hot Oklahoma afternoon.

“I rarely saw anyone there doing trouble, didn’t see anybody looting or vandalizing and it was in broad daylight so it was the most peaceful protest I’ve ever been to,” Samuel said. “Everything he said really could have elevated the response that the police force had to our peaceful protest… Those police really took a heed to what he was saying.”

The video clip went viral on Twitter, garnering over 61,000 views and nearly 1,000 likes. After this attention, Gardner released an apology statement.

“I understand that some of the comments I made during our protest coverage yesterday have hurt people,” Gardner said. “That was never my intention. I’m sorry and I sure wish I would have said things differently. I can and will do better. I certainly did not mean to hurt anyone with my comments. I’m always looking for ways to improve and I’ve learned from this. I’m so proud of the folks who are peacefully protesting and of our great team at News 9 who are working so hard."

But rather than letting this situation gain local notoriety and be forgotten about, Samuel saw an opportunity. He felt a call to action to promote social change and did so by reaching out to Griffin Communications, which owns many news stations such as News 9 and News on 6 in Tulsa.

“I actually talked to the president of News 9, David Griffin, about the situation and I really tried to press for more racial equity within the media and representation. So based off that conversation, we’ve reached somewhat of a starting point for creating that and having a space for it. So it’s gonna be a continuous conversation.”

As for Griffin Communications, the company is now trying to take steps forward to be more inclusive.

“I will speak on (Griffin Communications’ diversity) both from a vice president and from my own personal standpoint,” Griffin Communications Vice President of Marketing Houston Hunt said. “From a personal standpoint, Griffin has always been an incredibly diverse and open corporation. 

“I am gay, I’m married to a man and it has never been an issue at my place of employment-- which, in Oklahoma, it can be an issue. And I will tell you that I have always been impressed by Griffin and the stations’ diversity and inclusion and the fact that they just want the best people in the seats.”

In light of this incident, Hunt says that Griffin is putting more emphasis on diversity in their work space. They even put forth a team to ensure that this plan follows through.

“We needed to really take a look and be more intentional about diversity and inclusion, so our vice president of human resources and our vice president of corporate development are actually leading a new diversity and inclusion task force that is made up of our employees,” Hunt said. 

This task force will include many employees and will be responsible for steering where Griffin goes in their work’s diversity, recommending changes on diversity, inclusivity and recruitment and looking at how the company can further evolve. 

Hunt believes real changes will stem from this.

“A lot of companies I feel like will say they’re ‘setting up a task force’ and a lot of times they’ll set up a task force, but if you don’t really empower that task force, you’re never going to see change,” Hunt said. “So I’m really happy that our vice presidents are not on the task force. It’s made up of our employees who are going to help lead us in this area.”

While Samuel appreciates the task force, he thinks Griffin Communications should do more in light of this incident.

“I definitely love that as a first step,” Samuel said. “I think it’s important to have that type of environment within your workplace but I believe that there has to be more steps… I just think that it will definitely need more follow up and more enhancement. 

“That can’t just be enough.”

Samuel sent many ideas to Griffin Communications including weekly reporting on social and political issues being faced by African Americans, increased reporting and journalism positions for people of color at News 9 and other Griffin stations, a corrective statement from News 9 and Gardner that “should not center the intent of Jim Gardner,” and a televised conversation between both Gardner and Samuel to discuss the message of Black Lives Matter.

“At this point, symbolic gestures just aren’t enough,” Samuel said.