Like most folks I have been following events in Ferguson, Missouri with equal measures of despair and frustration. I have even watched the live feed from Vice news before a queasy feeling sent me away from my computer screen—the realization that I may have stumbled upon a new cultural phenom which can only be described as riot porn.
After a week of following the story on the Internet and via social media, I have come to conclude a few things:
• Ferguson and St. Louis County police, and likely most police agencies in other cities, particularly those which include a large, but politically excluded community, need to seriously re-evaluate tactics and training regarding community relations, traffic or field stops of local residents, crowd control and diversity hiring. (After the unrelated shooting of another man in St. Louis, I would add that a thorough reassessment of procedures in encounters with psychologically impaired people would also be a grave service.)
• The national disbursement of surplus military gear to local police agencies requires a top-to-bottom review
• Interracial understanding in the United States remains distressingly superficial.
I have also come to conclude that just as police should take advantage of this crisis to review training and procedures regarding use of force, field stops, crowd control and community-building, the U.S. media might benefit from a critical review of its own performance in Ferguson.
What I saw on the Vice feed too often were flashes of wide-eyed young people almost eager for the possibility of confrontation. No, I’m not talking about the would-be “rioters,” I’m talking about the members of the media.
How far did the overwhelming presence of amateur-to-professional media move from covering the Ferguson story to generating it? It seemed that the press was quite often even physically in the way of events. What I saw was perhaps a modern media Heisenberg principle at work.
Freelance photojournalist Abe Van Dyke spent a week in Ferguson, but left on Aug. 20, “embarrassed” to shoot in the community any longer after what he experienced on the night of Aug. 19. His pictures of the media scrum on the streets of Ferguson tell the story:
When the skies turn dark is when troublemakers come out which has led to night after night of violence in this small community. Expecting the worst, an increasing amount of amateur, foreign and domestic journalists came into town. At one point there appeared to be as many media members as there were protestors…. At one point after arresting a woman, police were surrounded on three sides by the media. To me this is the point where the media is no longer simply reporting what is happening but rather becoming a hindrance and making the situation worse. Over the past few days journalists have been a part of inciting protestors by getting dangerously close and not always following police orders.
Tonight when ordered to disperse by police, the media and protestors became one group with cameras and raised hands intertwined. Officers requested multiple times that the media back away and return to the police staging ground though very few left and rather continued to photograph the scene. I am no saint. I photographed alongside everyone tonight and was part of the problem. I refused to follow police orders and only moved when threatened by arrest or with the flow of the crowd. I am embarrassed by the way the media acted tonight, myself included and have decided that the media is now a problem in Ferguson. I will be leaving Missouri in the morning while hundreds of other journalists will continue to record events and battle with police for the right to be there.
I have long wondered about the blurring of professional boundaries that has been accelerated by the advent of digital media. Journalists are no longer just reporting, they are often required to participate, as I am right now, as bloggers and analysts where a certain degree of subjective reasoning is tolerated, even demanded. We're encouraged to be edgy, to draw traffic, to think out loud and quickly. But what happens when we ask journalists to switch gears and cover a story that would benefit most—and would benefit the public most—from straight reporting and careful deliberation. A man's life has been lost; another man's life hangs in the balance. I don’t believe the general public was ultimately well-served by the images and the rhetoric streaming out of Ferguson. For example, the use of deadly force by police in these and other recent, nationally publicized incidents suggests a troubling racial disparity in the use of non-lethal and lethal force by police, but did many news reports out of Ferguson note that research to demonstrate that phenomenon is far from conclusive.
At the Shorenstein Center's Journalist Resource blog, John Wihbey writes:
Research has definitively established that “racial profiling” by law enforcement exists—that persons of color are more likely to be stopped by police. But while the cases of Rodney King in 1991 and Amadou Diallo in 1999 heightened the country’s awareness of race and policing, research has not uniformly corroborated the contention that minorities are more likely, on average, to be subject to acts of police force than are whites. A 2010 paper published in the Southwestern Journal of Criminal Justice reviewed more than a decade’s worth of peer-reviewed studies and found that while many studies established a correlation between minority status and police use of force, many other studies did not—and some showed mixed results.
I am no believer in a purely objective journalism. Everyone brings their biases and interests into their work; some with a better cognizance of that than others. (And in the interests of blogging transparency, I will acknowledge a few things now: I am a middle-aged white male who has only rarely had any sort of encounter with police—though a couple that were unnecessarily bullying—and I come from a family overloaded with municipal civil servants—FDNY and NYPD among them.) I also don't think reporters should accept unreasonable security demands, at home or abroad. I acknowledge that I have played the role of advocacy journalist myself, but I believe I have always tried to let the facts and the experience I witness tell the story without making myself a protagonist of the story. In this instance, the facts and implications of the fatal encounter on Aug. 9 are getting lost in data streams of insta-opinionizing. Were members of the media doing a good job interpreting events and presenting the facts of the death of Michael Brown and the subsequent community uproar or were they too often transmitting misinformation or blithely hyperbolizing?
Some quick examples: MSNBC’s Chris Hayes via twitter, likened life in Ferguson to an “occupation”—and with events in the Middle East dominant in the news, I have to presume he was associating it with life in occupied Palestinian Territories. I don't wish to understate the frustration of a U.S. community that feels unfairly targeted by its own police department, but I'm not sure the people in the OPT would agree with the comparison. And watching CNN’s Chris Cuomo and Anderson Cooper holding forth on an another shooting in St. Louis, second-guessing police officers who had to make a split-second decision while an agitated man with a knife converged on them (while dutifully noting the unfairness of such second-guessing), was particularly excruciating.
Social media shares some blame for whatever misperceptions emerge out of Ferguson; some of the initial narrative, for example, of the Aug. 9 shooting incident itself has been challenged by subsequent testimony. Twitter can work wonders in rapidly bringing attention to important stories, it can also be the source of the lightning dissemination of misinformation that can heighten rather than defuse tensions. It's distressing when the mainstream professional press participates in that dissemination by seizing on potentially erroneous information, discussing and disseminating rumors or in wide-ranging vanity speculation.
The use of social media has become an accepted aspect of daily reporting, but I'm not sure that the medium's specific weaknesses have been fully anticipated and internalized. However they deploy or exploit social media in their work, ultimately journalists have to accept responsibility for the way a story plays out and their “fourth estate” obligations to the public. There are conflicting eyewitness accounts as to what transpired between Office Darren Wilson and Michael Brown on Aug. 9, and under existing Missouri law, assuming Wilson's account proves closest to the reality of what happened, not only is he likely to be found not guilty of anything, he is likely to not even face an indictment. I have seen few news sites attempt to prepare the public for such an outcome; indeed the opposite seems more the case, that anything short of the arrest and conviction of Wilson has already been deemed a serious injustice.
Will the media soon be descending on St. Louis county again to cover more civil unrest when a grand jury reaches its decision? If so, it may be partly because of the manner media professionals conducted themselves this month in Ferguson.