In Ferguson, local news coverage shines

'At so many of these press events, the speakers keep making the point that these cameras will go away...We won't go away'

Reporter Chris Reginer and cameraman Mike Border of St. Louis’ KPLR-11 at the police command post in Jennings, MO, interviewing State Senator Maria Chapelle-Nadal. Chapelle-Nadal, who has been an active participant in recent protests, represents Missouri’s 14th district, which includes Ferguson. (Photo Credit: Evan Simko-Bednarski)

It has been a stressful, sleep-deprived 11 days for St. Louis journalists, ever since teenager Michael Brown was shot on August 9 by a police officer in the suburb of Ferguson, MO, provoking protests and riots unlike anything the city has ever seen. But in the midst of the chaos, local media has largely risen to the enormity of the task of covering the story.

“The work that’s coming out is pretty astonishing,” said Jessica Lussenhop, managing editor of the city’s alt-weekly Riverfront Times, praising not only her own staff but also competitors such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Their photographers are doing amazing work. A lot of the public radio people are out there constantly; the local TV anchors have been putting in crazy hours.”

Many national and international correspondents have done fine reporting in Ferguson, but those looking to find the full story—the most complete portrait of Brown, the protests, and the city—should think local.

The faces of Michael Brown

One of the biggest issues arising in this story has been the choice of photos used to depict Brown. The controversy over the media’s choice of photos in the Trayvon Martin coverage was reignited as widely differing images of Brown, some real and some fake, began to proliferate across the Web. The most interesting piece of media criticism arising from the controversy is the now-viral #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag, in which young African Americans posted pictures of themselves looking friendly and wholesome juxtaposed with pictures in which they appear imposing or angry, to ask the rhetorical question: Which would the media use?

Rather than pick one reply, or resort to blanket outrage, journalists steeped in complex local dynamics offered subtle takes.

“I don’t think it’s invalid that some of these images may have shown him looking angry,” said Lussenhop of the Riverfront Times, who took “photos of photos” of Brown when she visited his grandmother’s house for a profile the day after the shooting. “It’s the same person. It’s a three-dimensional picture. People’s lives are not two-dimensional.” She said that the Times has used a variety of images to give the full picture of Brown.

Another local outlet, though, TV station KSDK, was criticized by fellow area outfits last week for using a picture of Brown that made him appear threatening. The photo shows a serious-looking young man in casual clothes flashing a peace sign—or, in the minds of those with a political axe to grind, a gang sign. According to the photo credit, it was provided to the station by Brown’s family. (KSDK’s news director did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.) But KSDK’s coverage didn’t stop at this one-dimensional representation of Brown. The station does deserve credit for inviting Destiny Crockett, an African-American Princeton student who hails from St. Louis, to sit in on an editorial meeting and take part in a live interview last week after she approached them at an NAACP event with concerns about coverage. “I think we need to be a lot more conscious about the way we portray the black community, the way we portray young black men specifically, and the way we portray the situation that’s happening right now in Ferguson,” Crockett told KSDK’s Kay Quinn.

Of course, the county police threw a wrench into this controversy on Friday, when they released a surveillance video allegedly showing Brown shoplifting at a convenience store and menacing a clerk minutes before his death—even though the police acknowledged that the officer who shot Brown did not stop him because of that incident. The timing of the release seemed designed to reverse perceptions about the young shooting victim while distracting from the simultaneous release of the shooter’s name.

News organizations locally and everywhere else ran the video. Still, most depictions of Brown in local media—visual and otherwise—have drawn an admirably nuanced picture.

In the wake of the shooting, the Post-Dispatch spoke to friends and teachers for a story depicting Brown as a “gentle giant.” Lussenhop for the Riverfront Times, after conversations with Brown’s cousin, grandmother, and other family members, wrote about “a shy, nonviolent kid who loved music and wanted to go to college.” On KTVI-TV, friends and neighbors described “a quiet but outgoing 18-year-old, with plans to start a business and dreams of becoming a star.”

‘Daytime community and nighttime chaos’

The depiction of Brown and other African Americans is connected to another issue in play during this controversy: coverage of the protests vs. coverage of the riots. Civic leaders and media critics have urged reporters not to allow the looting and rioting to overwhelm the more substantive elements of the story—the breadth of the demonstrations and why they are happening.

Nikole Hannah-Jones of Essence wrote last week that media coverage has “obsessed about the rioting” and that “[t]he real story—the shooting, yet again, of an unarmed black teenager by a white cop—“has taken a backseat to the sensational.”

In fairness, much of the national coverage has been excellent. But local media, with its assets on the ground, its 24-7 focus on the story, and its prior understanding of the many players involved and long-standing issues in play, has offered the deepest dive into the complexities of the Ferguson story.

This does not mean ignoring the violence.

It was photojournalist David Carson of the Post-Dispatch who took the best and most widely viewed pictures of the first looting incidents on the night after the Brown shooting—outside of his usual work shift and at great personal risk.

“You have to document the looting,” Tim Eby, general manager of St. Louis Public Radio, told me, “because it’s happening and it’s what’s keeping residents from leaving their homes.”

But St. Louis media have taken pains to ensure that the rest of the story—the increasingly militarized police presence, the peaceful protesters, and the message that they’re trying to convey—is not buried.

“We’re very mindful that you’ve got daytime community and nighttime chaos,” said Margaret Freivogel, editor of St. Louis Public Radio. The challenge is to cover both.

Video from The St. Louis American, the city’s African-American weekly newspaper, and photo galleries from St. Louis Public Radio have emphasized the protesters’ calls for peace and community efforts to clean up after the riots.

But the work of the Post-Dispatch’s photo staff has been peerless, as even competitors such as Eby and Lussenhop have acknowledged. The paper’s “Ferguson in Pictures” gallery supplemented David Carson’s photos of looting with dramatic and moving photos of grieving family members, peaceful demonstrators—and, again, an alarmingly militarized police presence on the streets of the city. And a remarkable panoramic photograph by P-D staffer Chris Lee shows a mass of protesters, press, and police in armored vehicles facing off in a single, uniquely dramatic tableau by the burnt-out Quik Trip on West Florissant Avenue.

St. Louis Public Radio, which beefed up its reporting and multimedia efforts after merging with the nonprofit St. Louis Beacon in December, has kept a continuous liveblog of the crisis since the day after the shooting. The blog is populated with SLPR stories, external links to other stories on Ferguson, video, and tweets from reporters and members of the community as events unfold.

One of those community members is St. Louis alderman Antonio French, who has been tweeting prolifically throughout the aftermath of the shooting. His tweets, including his own accounts of the crisis along with Vine and YouTube videos, have provided insight into the ongoing struggle within the protest movement—between the peacekeepers trying to quell violence and the looters and rioters fanning the flames.

And more than a million viewers have turned to previously-unknown KARG Argus Radio, an upstart independent local station formed mainly to broadcast local music events, which has taken viewers into the heart of the action on Florissant with a continuous livestream.

And, needless to say for those who have been following the story, all the journalists on the scene—professional and unaccredited, local, national, and international—have done their jobs at times under threat from those who would prefer they didn’t: both looters and the police. Carson was confronted by a gun-wielding looter as he shot pictures inside Quik Trip on August 10. Mustafa Hussein of Argus Radio said he was threatened by police while livestreaming the protests last Saturday.

“Reporters are understandably skeptical of law enforcement out there, and whether they’re going to help us or arrest us,” Lussenhop said.

And then there’s the tear gas and rubber bullets. St. Louis Public Radio reporters had to take cover in a local household to escape the gas and gunfire on Saturday, just as Carson did several nights earlier.

“After last weekend, we went out and bought some gas masks and flak jackets and helmets for our reporters who are going out there,” Eby said, adding that he’d never before imagined having to take such steps for a domestic story.

Looking ahead

Even once the protests die down, St. Louis is left with the task of piecing together how this all happened, and trying to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Local media have already begun this process of civic self-examination.

The Post-Dispatch editorial board argued on Thursday that the crisis lays bare the educational and economic disparities in the city: “St. Louis will never be great again if we don’t all take responsibility for the least among us, if we don’t strengthen our core first, if we don’t break down the walls that divide us.”

And a powerful op-ed last week from the St. Louis American suggested that the city must study and adopt “successful models” of community policing, diversify the police force, “stop protecting police officers when they use unwarranted force, against black men or anyone,” and more broadly, “do more to include African Americans in educational, economic and social opportunities for the greater good of the region.”

“This incident is a crossroads for Ferguson and the region and an opportunity to address issues decades in the making,” KSDK’s Art Holliday told viewers on Thursday. “Will we seize the day? If we don’t, Michael Brown’s death, already tragic, will be in vain.”

It might be too much to hope that these eloquent pleas in the midst of crisis will lead to reform or any kind of community healing, but Lussenhop and other local journalists want to assure their audiences of one thing: They will not forget this story once the national media spotlight has faded.

“At so many of these press events, the speakers keep making the point that these cameras will go away” when the crisis subsides, Lussenhop told me. But, she added, “We won’t go away. After all the dust settles, the best, most comprehensive coverage is going to come from these local reporters.”

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Deron Lee is CJR's correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.