The evolution of breaking news coverage stood out like an appositional thumb during the turmoil in Ferguson, Mo.
Ferguson affirmed Twitter's position as the piston that drives the engine of spot-news journalism. Hundreds of people, including reporters, citizens, law enforcers and representatives of “observer' organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), were serial-tweeting from Ferguson during the most contentious mid-August nights in the St. Louis suburb.
But if the Twitter feed is journalism, it often is more exclamatory than explanatory. “Everybody breaks into a run,” one journalist tweeted from Ferguson on Aug. 20. “Cops chasing down somebody.”
Micro-deadlines to post content on social media platforms have placed most journalists under extreme pressure at the scenes of breaking-news events like this, as Debora H. Wenger and I delineated in a 2013 report for the Center on Media, Crime and Justice.
“The news cycle is now 24/7 due to the Internet,” Amanda Lamb of WRAL-TV in Raleigh, N.C., told us. “We no longer work for the next show. We work for the next five minutes on the Web.”
John Strang, of WFLA-TV in Tampa, called it “feeding the beast.”
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch certainly fed the gaping maw.
The paper recognized the importance of the story early—soon after Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on Saturday, August 9.
The Post-Dispatch posted its first photo from the scene within five hours of the shooting, and it would print or post nearly 300 more photos, stories and updates over the following two days.
The national media (and dozens of nontraditional outlets such as The Daily Banter) began arriving on August 11, after looting and arson broke out the previous night.
The assembled St. Louis-area law enforcers gave the arriving throng something to photograph by rolling out their war toys, sparking a national debate about the militarization of police agencies with surplus assault rifles and armored vehicles eagerly supplied by the federal government.
Apropos of the tanks, a phrase borrowed from the military was tattooed into the media jargon in Ferguson. Dozens of stories and headlines in the mainstream media (or major feeder brooks like The Hill) referred to their reporters as being “on the ground” in Ferguson, from the military's familiar “boots-on-the-ground” usage.
I saw “on the ground” references to reporters used in the New York Times, the Huffington Post and the Guardian, among many others. The ACLU also said it had staffers “on the ground” in Ferguson.
ABC's “Nightline” doubled down with war-speak in an August 18 segment, “Ferguson, Missouri: On the Ground in an American City Under Siege.” The show said it had “embedded with a rapper and young activist who goes by the name Haiku.” In other words, a “Nightline” crew followed him around.
I see mission creep in the lexicon.
Ferguson is a 10-minute drive from the car rental counters at Lambert–St. Louis International Airport. It's not exactly like working in Aleppo, Donetsk or Mosul.
That's not to say that working journalists were not in danger there. A number of reporters, photographers and technicians were subjected to tantrums and worse by rogue cops. Some were arrested, bullied, tear-gassed.
Mustafa Hussein, who covered the Ferguson events as an independent video journalist, said the perils faced by reporters should not be dismissed.
“There were several nights in Ferguson that were very reminiscent of being forward-deployed,” Hussein, who said he served in the Marine Corps in the mid-1990s, told me. “There was some serious fighting going on there.”
Hussein, 38, was one of the more interesting media stories to emerge from Ferguson. He moved from Chicago to Maplewood, Mo., three years ago when his wife took a teaching job in the St. Louis area.
Hussein is a graduate student in political science, focusing on civil rights and constitutional issues, at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He works at a mom-and-pop internet radio station, argusradio.com, that had been focused on bringing the music of independent urban artists to its modest-sized audience.
That changed on August 12. Coincidentally, Hussein took delivery that day of new video and audio gear that Argus intended to use to produce live streams of concerts.
“We were sitting there unpacking the equipment out of the FedEx boxes, and the Ferguson thing was on TV,” he told me. “I was like, damn, you know that's not what's really happening down there. I said, wait a minute, we've got this camera now. We can go down there and livestream it ourselves.”
And he did.
Twenty minutes after Argus Radio went live that night, 500,000 were watching the video images that Hussein provided, including his own confrontation with a law enforcer. Nearly 1.4 million people have now watched that feed (and made thousands of comments about it). Hussein and his colleagues have produced an archive of several dozen live-streamed events from Ferguson. None has attracted the audience of that first night, but several have drawn more than 100,000 viewers.
The resonance of the Ferguson story has prompted Hussein to rethink the ArgusRadio business plan.
“We're actually moving into a news format, and we've put the concert thing on hold,” he said. “We're staying with Ferguson until the end.”
On Saturday, the firm launched its new brand, ArgusNewsNow.com. Hussein said he hopes to fill a niche that the traditional media cannot.
“I think they were doing the best they could,” he said. “But no major network and no local station is going to be able to provide six continuous hours of streaming footage like we did. They have to cut to commercials, cut to their other programming. We don't.”
Media critics have chronicled a number of lamentable anecdotes involving journalism in Ferguson: the young reporter who supposedly called it a great networking opportunity; the independent photojournalist who abandoned the assignment rather than continue as part of “this large media circus“; the HuffPost's gauche solicitation of public donations to fund a permanent reporter for Ferguson.
Yes, mistakes were made. A Post-Dispatch reporter told me he was irked by the sloppy errors of interlopers, including journalists, an often-cited blogger and academicians who displayed questionable understanding of St. Louis and/or the criminal justice system.
But the events in Ferguson also prompted publication of many important stories across the country, from inventories of local police war toys to profiles of the racial gaps in America's police departments. (Again, credit to the Post-Dispatch for leading the way on many of these stories, including an August 24 piece by Doug Moore, Walker Moskop and Nancy Cambria that chronicled the police racial disparity in 31 St. Louis County towns.)
Unfortunately, the modern media works that way.
Stretched thin, we careen collectively from one emergency to the next until an event like Ferguson prompts us to take a closer look at enduring problems.
I asked E.R. Shipp, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who writes frequently about race and social issues, her impressions of the media coverage of Ferguson.
“I suppose I’m tired of seeing so many in the media 'discover' for the first time again that these problems exist—that there is racism, that there is structural racism, that places like Ferguson exist where blacks, for reasons including their own complicity, are so hopeless, powerless, directionless,” said Shipp, journalist-in-residence at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
“Thank god for social media and all those 'citizen journalists' with smartphones.”
David J. Krajicek (@djkrajicek) is a contributing editor of The Crime Report and co-editor of Crime & Justice News. He writes The Justice Story for the New York Daily News and is a 2014 fellow with the Fund for Investigative Journalism.