Insight: Global Media Couldn’t Best Local Guild Journalists in Ferguson

By David Carson

United Media Guild

 

ST.LOUIS (PAI)–The August events in Ferguson, Mo., are known around the world.  A police officer shot and killed an unarmed teenager and the resulting protests, rioting and looting went viral.

 

The only thing that spread more quickly than images of Michael Brown’s lifeless body in the street were social media-fueled rumors and speculation.

 

Separating fact from fiction in the tidal wave of tweets, videos and photos on social media was a challenge.  Police refused to release even basic details or verify facts.  Protesters believed and repeated stories that were wrong.

 

As the story exploded on social media, and journalists arrived from across the country and around the world, the crowds grew – from peaceful activists and community organizers to smaller groups of troublemakers from outside the St. Louis area.

 

It was a fascinating and dynamic situation. Demonstrators openly argued about what direction the protests would take: A peaceful, loud, sustained protest in search of justice for Michael Brown?  Or a more confrontational and violent approach?

 

I watched each day as a full 80 percent of the crowd sought peaceful protest.  But at night, especially early on, the protesters advocating violence had their way.

 

Even the media was a target.  My coworkers, reporters Steve Giegerich and Paul Hampel, were struck in the head from behind while covering protests.  Post-Dispatch religion reporter Lilly Fowler had her iPhone stolen from her hands as she was sending a tweet from the scene.

 

I was also assaulted.  A small group of rioters chased me down the street and one struck me in the head.  The blow knocked me to the ground, shattering a camera lens and breaking a camera.  I had a helmet on, but I hit the ground hard.  As I looked up, the man kicked me.  I kicked back, and swung my broken camera at him, as I lay on the ground.

 

Peaceful protesters, who stepped forward to help in each assault, far outnumbered the violent.  But you had to be constantly aware of your surroundings.  Some media outlets hired security guards and many of us on the scene wore bullet-proof vests, helmets and, when needed, gas masks.

 

The way the police dealt with the media was unpredictable.  I had both good and bad interactions with officers.  I was threatened with arrest numerous times for just standing and watching the events.  I wasn’t arrested, but other journalists – professionals of the highest caliber – were, just for doing their jobs.

 

Blurring the lines between protesters and working media were “citizen journalists” and activists identifying themselves as journalists.  Some did a nice job documenting the event. Others came with agendas and no concern about professional journalism’s standards of neutrality.

 

(Newspaper Guild editor’s note: Several days into the Ferguson riots, the Guild sent a letter to Ferguson police chief and mayor signed by United Media Guild leaders in St. Louis and international President Bernie Lunzer spelling out concerns, solutions and the Guild’s understanding of the rapid decisions police officers must make in the midst of large protests to protect themselves and the public.  The letter explained that in Oakland, Calif., the Guild worked with police and city leaders to develop policies to protect journalists without compromising public safety.  One such policy was to instruct all officers in a conflict situation in which someone identifies as a working journalist to call in a supervising officer or public information officer to assess the validity of the claim.)

 

I’m biased, but I believe my coworkers and Newspaper Guild members at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch provided the most accurate source of information.  Reporters, editors and my fellow photographers worked tirelessly to cover the story in print, online and on social media. The depth and breadth of the journalism we produced illustrates what an asset newspapers are to the community and why they’re still needed.