How journalists can improve their coverage of Ferguson & help the community
Resident Wesley Bell has spoken out about the recent events in Ferguson. Photo taken by Mary Delach Leonard and used with permission from St. Louis Public Radio.
As news in Ferguson, Missouri, continues to develop, reporters and photographers are facing a growing number of challenges. They’re tasked with telling a nuanced narrative that has been complicated by racial tensions, civil unrest, arrests, tear gas, and a lack of information.
For all the challenges it presents, the story also offers journalists an opportunity — to tell community-based narratives that help people make sense of the chaos and identify meaningful pathways forward.
Journalists don’t need to have all the answers. But they can share lessons from other communities that Ferguson can learn from. The New York Times did this in a piece that explains how Cincinnati, Oakland, Los Angeles, and Miami have dealt with similar situations involving police who shot unarmed black men.
Times reporters Erica Goode and Michael Wines say these cities have learned the importance of quickly releasing information, cultivating relationships with civic and religious leaders, and stopping violence before it gets out of hand:
Oakland rioted in 2009 after a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager — by accident, he said — as he lay on the ground. The officer immediately resigned and initially refused to talk to the authorities, but the transit agency met with residents and listened to complaints about the shooting for six hours, then agreed to review its policing procedures.
In Miami in 1989, rioting began in the mostly African-American neighborhood of Overtown after two unarmed black men were killed by a Hispanic officer. But the unrest settled a week later, when prosecutors charged the officer with manslaughter, without waiting for the findings of a police review panel or a grand jury.
In Cincinnati, repairing the wounds of the riots took years. The city entered into a voluntary agreement with the Justice Department to review and correct police procedures, and gradually worked through the problems.
“People were generally worried about the future of this city and how it was going to come out,” said Mr. Luken, the former mayor, “but curiously, it has come out of it bigger and better.
The New York Times story is a good example of how to move beyond breaking news coverage by helping people see the bigger picture. It’s also a reminder that the narrative of one community — Ferguson in this case — can be strengthened by the narratives of others.
This is a time when journalists need some strength and hope. They’ve taken great risks to report the news in Ferguson; some have been arrested, harassed, and tear gassed. Despite the dangerous conditions, they continue to inform people about what’s happening in a once little-known city that has attracted worldwide attention.
When a city suddenly finds itself at the center of a major news story, it’s easy for it to become defined by the news. National media outlets swoop in and report what’s happening on the ground, but have little time to actually get to know the community. This is where local organizations can step in and play a more influential role.
In an interview with Jill Geisler of The Poynter Institute, St. Louis Public Radio editor Margaret Wolf Freivogel said:
“The image of St. Louis I see in national media is not the St. Louis I know. For our newsroom, this is more than a big story. This is home. We need to keep reporting on the issues that existed before Michael Brown’s death and that will still need to be addressed when the spotlight moves on.”
St. Louis Public Radio has done a good job capturing what Ferguson is really like, without reducing it to a “battle ground.” Last week, it launched a new series called “This is Ferguson,” which features local residents sharing untold stories about the city.
“In Ferguson, there’s a strong sense of community,’’ Ferguson resident Wesley Bell told St. Louis Public Radio’s Mary Delach Leonard. “I don’t want Ferguson to be painted as some racial hot spot, because it’s not that.’’
Leonard also spoke with Dan Wentz, a Ferguson veterinarian who had to board up one of his office windows after it was shattered during the riots. On the board, he wrote: “Ferguson Proud.”
“That’s how I feel,’’ Wentz said. “It really hurts to see the bad press that Ferguson’s getting because I believe this is not a reflection of what Ferguson is.”
Wentz has worked in Ferguson for more than two decades and says his customers are racially and ethnically diverse. “It’s a very nice, diverse community,” he told Leonard. “People get along. They cooperate.”
Ferguson resident Molly Rockamann told Leonard: “The outpouring of support has been beautiful. On the converse, people all of a sudden are having a fear about Ferguson because of the sensationalized media attention around the lootings. Those are significant things, but Ferguson is not a war zone.”
When we see front-page photos of tear gas being fired into the air, it’s hard not to envision Ferguson as a war zone. Stories about the tear gas and arrests are important, but it’s worth asking: To what end? At what point do we as journalists shift our focus from “what’s happening in Ferguson?” to “what’s possible in Ferguson?”
The public deserves to hear stories that paint a more accurate picture of Ferguson and that show what it can learn from other communities.
Ultimately, stories like these can give people hope — and provide them with insights about how to respond to difficult situations in ways that will strengthen the community rather than tear it apart.