Lessons from Ferguson
As we watch all of the protests, looting, and destruction of property across our country following the death of George Floyd, I am sure many Missourians flashed back nearly six years ago to Ferguson. We have, sadly, been here before.
At our convention in 2015, we had a two-hour panel discussion about lessons learned from Ferguson in regards to the work done by Missouri broadcasters – specifically those in St. Louis.
Yesterday I re-watched the discussion to get a sense of what local broadcasters must be going through today.
The panel was made up of six people plus a moderator. The St. Louis broadcasters included a general manager from television and one from radio, a reporter from the Associated Press, a morning television anchor/reporter, a radio reporter, and a St. Louis alderman.
As they described their experiences, I was struck by the strong quality of the group. It was easy to recognize that the local reporters were absolutely superior in conveying the story amidst the national and international journalists that flooded the city.
The local journalists were reporting on the community that they lived and worked in every day. They had established relationships that allowed them to more accurately communicate information to the citizens of the St. Louis area. More than once, the panel referenced the lack of knowledge by the national and international press. They shared the frustration of press conferences being shut down due to an out-of-town journalist asking hypothetical and irrelevant questions. National anchors would discuss locations of communities in the St. Louis area that were completely wrong.
Though a somewhat new tool for broadcasting, social media was a driving force in communication among the protesters and journalists following the events as they unfolded. The protests were very organic in nature. The broadcasters had to have people assigned to just monitor social media all day, every day, to help determine their coverage. This also created an environment of increased threats to station employees. Broadcasters in St. Louis had to hire extra security at their stations and in the field. Because of the shortage of private security people being available, they had to go out of town to bring in that extra security. Stations had to ask themselves, how seriously do you take threats? Do you contact the police and FBI?
Station vehicles were damaged and even employees outside of the newsroom were being threatened!
Stations had to find bullet proof vests and helmets for their staff. This made it even more challenging to be able to interview people on the street. Managers had to determine if gas masks were needed, and more importantly, how to train reporters and videographers in the use of equipment they were not used to using. Should employees wear station branded clothing? What should be considered? Can reporters blend in or do they put themselves at risk?
The panel agreed that there were indeed out-of-town people getting arrested every day. There were points when there were more media personnel than protesters on-site. A single arrest was encircled by journalists holding up cameras. The St. Louis Alderman called it “riot porn”.
Multiple times the panel talked of the critical importance of sorting out the truth. Too often, the national media would focus more on being “first” than being accurate, and then have to take back what they reported. Again, local broadcasters had the established relationships that assisted in reporting more accurately.
As a result of the Ferguson story, advertisers reduced spending in St. Louis. National conventions were canceled, which impacted the St. Louis area for several years. Expense budgets exploded with additional costs of security, protective equipment, overtime, and even meals to feed staff.
One piece of advice for stations at the time, that is more relevant than ever today, was to have an emergency plan in place. Here are just a few of the resources we’ve gathered recently on emergency and contingency planning during the pandemic and now during the protests:
- Free webinar from MU’s Journalism school on staying safe on volatile assignments
- NAB’s page of resources for journalists covering protests
- Legal advisory on important priorities for broadcasters during a pandemic
- Health and safety tips for field journalists
- An entire page of links and resources for broadcasters during the pandemic, including webinar recordings, legal articles, and more
Today, with the loss of revenue all broadcasters are experiencing as a result of the pandemic, it is even more difficult to report the protests and violence. And yet, broadcasting is more important than ever. Local reporting is more trusted than any other form. I believe that accurate unbiased reporting is the key to any meaningful future change for our country.
I am very proud to be a part of this great industry.