While they wait to hear whether Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson will be charged in the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, journalists have been busy churning out hundreds, if not thousands of stories, exploring everything from police conduct to the racial divide in the U.S. We’ve also seen a spate of stories about the need to have black journalists on staff to cover stories like Ferguson. In a sense, some positives have come from the sea of negative that surrounds the tragic events that happened in Ferguson, Missouri last month.
Below are five more ways in which we think Ferguson has changed journalism for the better, making news coverage more diverse and comprehensive:
Ferguson has led to increased media attention to matters important to communities of color, issues long ignored by journalism outlets who sought instead to focus on challenges faced by whites and more affluent communities. Those issues include: the disproportionate number of blacks killed at the hands of trigger-happy white people; the disproportionate number of black and brown men in prison; the difference in police activity in communities of color versus predominantly white neighborhoods; as well as the militarization of police. The stories have not only led to Ferguson area police officers who behaved badly to resign, retire or be fired, but also Congress considering legislation requiring police to wear body cameras.
Ferguson has undeniably given a significant boost to citizen journalism. From St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, who used a variety of social media platforms to provide up-to-the-minute coverage of frustration in Ferguson long before mainstream arrived on the scene, to a resident who apparently live-tweeted the shooting as it happened and others who caught police misconduct on camera, Ferguson’s citizen journalists have proved once and for all the value of the immediacy of live-streaming video and unfiltered first-hand accounts of news events. And finally, also thanks to Ferguson, more citizens know it is NOT against the law to record police.
Ferguson, not for the first time, lifted the veil on stereotypes media outlets insist on perpetuating as well as the active role news organizations play in criminalizing black victims of crime. In 2012, it was the media’s use of images of Trayvon Martin wearing a hoodie and even some fake pictures of Martin that lit social media on fire. Black Twitter responded in rapid fire with photos of users wearing their own hoodies in solidarity with Martin. This time, with Brown’s death, Black Twitter again caught national attention with the #iftheygunnedmedown hashtag campaign in which users challenged the way the media distorts images of black people and black identity. Several news organizations, including The New York Times, checked themselves in how they are guilty of perpetuating negative stereotype, which all too often helps to shape negative and inaccurate images of people of color. Here’s to hoping this kind of media self-reflection continues in the future so that the same mistakes aren’t continuously repeated.
At a time when the number of black journalists inside newsrooms have plummeted, Ferguson has led many news organizations to re-examine the importance of having black and brown news persons on staff. Sonali Kohli recently wrote for Quartz about the poignant coverage black journalists provided during the height of Ferguson protests. Kohli singled out reporting by Joel D. Anderson, a black reporter for Buzzfeed: “… throughout the protests, his coverage has been probing not just because he is a good journalist or because he is black, but because of his accumulated experiences, from noticing similarities between protesters and his own family members to understanding the truth of their stories through past prejudice he has faced. Anderson tells Quartz that he feels a sense of familiarity with protesters who might be overlooked by other journalists, which helps in his reporting.” The Huffington Post, in partnership with The Beacon Reader, has also committed to remaining in Ferguson, even as other news organizations have left, in order to continue covering Brown’s shooting. Mariah Stewart, a 23-year-old freelance journalist was hired as a reporting fellow. Through a crowdfunding campaign, the partnership will pay Stewart $40,000 to cover Ferguson for the next year. Here’s hoping that Huffington Post will use its reach, and deep pockets, to extend Stewart’s tenure and to build on its Ferguson coverage beyond a year.
Ferguson put the spotlight on the importance of local news outlets, particularly ethnic media. The St. Louis American, one of the country’s oldest black newspapers, not only continues to report on the events on the ground in the St. Louis suburb, but its managing editor, Chris King, also played an integral role in controlling and preventing some of the reported violence during the protests. As Paige Williams writes for The New Yorker, King texted a high-ranking member of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, helping law enforcement to do its job better. “King’s actions, which may differ from those of more conventional journalists, come out of his history as an activist and an N.R.O.T.C. cadet,” Williams writes. If nothing else, Ferguson teaches just how wrong Williams is, and how disconnected she and perhaps some New Yorker readers may be from the world the rest of us live in. To Williams, King’s actions may appear to be somehow unique, but they aren’t. And no, it doesn’t come from some kind of activism unique to King or his life as an N.R.O.T.C. cadet; it comes from a long-held obligation of black newspapers serving as both an information source and as advocate for the communities they serve. That’s how ethnic media, particularly the black press, has always worked.