Tag Archives: Ferguson

A different Ferguson effect

We journalists like to talk about the distinction between a topic and a story. The topic of my latest story, in this Sunday’s New York Times business section, is the role employers can play in hiring more former prisoners for good jobs after their release. I developed that topic from chatter I heard in the criminal-justice policy world and from asking a question, after reading umpteen stories about the desperate need to boost employment numbers as a prisoner-reentry strategy. The question: What’s in it for employers?

Once I knew that was the topic I wanted to write about, I needed to find an example of a place where the problem is being tackled in a creative, market-driven way. What drew me to St. Louis was the merits of the program I focus on. It is, all my sources agreed, the most ambitious and effective of its kind.

But its location makes for an irony. It’s not one that I explored in the story, but that’s what blogs are for. That this program blossomed in the shadow of Ferguson, Missouri, speaks to a more complicated narrative about that region’s approach to crime than the one we’ve heard again and again after the death of Michael Brown.

I’m not saying the Brown protests lack authenticity. Whatever the interpretation of the facts surrounding Brown’s death, it’s clear that the systems of justice in Ferguson and St. Louis County were exposed as severely unfair and racist in multiple state and federal probes.

And I’m not saying that the program I wrote about is a response to the Ferguson controversy. In fact, it started in 2002, long before the protests in the St. Louis area.

But it’s an example of how the common outside view of a place can obscure contradictions. Though in the story I focus on the business rationale for this program, what’s just as interesting to me is that the people running it are motivated to change lives for the better. Their primary job is to enforce conditions of supervision once someone gets out of prison. But, to do that job, they choose to focus on helping those people adjust and creating conditions that make it more likely for them to succeed.

The upshot of the story is how difficult and detailed such attempts can be. But the underlying message is just as important: Someone in a position of power is trying, on a fairly grand scale.

After #Ferguson decision, we need a better story

When ABC News last night cut away from the Missouri press conference just at the moment when the prosecutor began explaining the evidence that led a grand jury to no-bill Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, I clicked off the TV in frustration. I didn’t need to hear George Stephanopoulos and Dan Abrams restate what I just heard. So I decided to call it a night (such is the fate of the extreme-early riser). By morning, I hoped, I would get something even better than the prosecutor’s selective, partisan account, and better than having to sift through a mountain of documents myself. I would read stories by journalists who have followed the Michael Brown killing closely and who could summarize the new evidence, compare it to what else is known, and present a coherent narrative of what just happened.

I’m still hoping for that. At The Washington Post, Terrence McCoy distilled Wilson’s testimony in a readable story. But it cries out for a cross-examining narrator, one who might, for example, point out that Wilson’s version of what started the fight at the car might face contradictions about whether he suspected Brown’s role in a robbery and whether Wilson provoked a confrontation with a polite invitation to Brown to take to the sidewalk. St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporters strung together a number of accounts from the grand jury testimony, but it’s nearly impossible for me to understand how claims about critical versions of the events — for example, whether Brown was reaching into his waistband as he charged at Wilson — were deemed more credible than others. Erik Ekholm of The New York Times homed in on this critical issue, prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s assertion about why the grand jury believed some previously unknown witnesses’ versions over others’. But it will take a lot more time and effort to explore how some testimony got discarded.

Since before last night’s announcement, some reporters have done a good job at explaining the legal definitions of the various levels of homicide charges possible: what evidence it would take to find that Wilson probably committed at least one of those crimes. But what those statutory questions fail to address — and here’s the big disconnect between the reactions of protesters and police supporters — is what difference it makes whether Wilson was justified in starting the incident in the first place. While the law looks most carefully at questions about deadly force once the confrontation turned violent, common sense (and a sense of history about police-community conflicts) dictates that we take a few steps back in the chronology to see who did what to make this thing explode. Though there may be no guilt in the narrow case considered by the law, there very well could be guilt in a broader sense — whether this was a needless confrontation that spun out of control.

In the swirl of competing narratives, anger, disgust, and regret, it’s impossible for one breaking-news account produced on deadline overnight to address, much less answer, all these questions and more. I wonder how many will be open to listening once some talented reporters and writers have had the time to do justice to this story.

War on press in Ferguson

It’s unlikely this new report on police harassment of journalists at the Ferguson, Missouri, protests will generate much sympathy from the public. And that’s a shame, considering that anyone seeking a fact-based discussion about Michael Brown’s death and the aftermath depends on the work of those journalists. But, at the very least, I hope its findings get heard where they count most: in police commands nationwide.

As Noam Cohen reports in today’s New York Times, the PEN American Center found dozens of violations of press freedoms, going beyond the most obvious, the arrests of journalists (of which there were 21, not just the handful that news reports at the time suggested). Threats, interference, and hostility pepper the anecdotes collected by PEN. Consider this one from the report:

In the early morning hours of August 19, reporters Ryan Devereaux of The Intercept and Lukas Hermsmeier of the German newspaper Bild were driving near the area of the protests, making their way towards a “command center” that had been set up for journalists. Crossing W. Florissant Ave., they heard police megaphones tell protestors that it was their “final warning.” The pair stopped the car and got out to see what was happening. While talking to a group of peaceful protestors, police fired tear gas in their direction. The interviewees left, and the two reporters returned to W. Florissant to document what munitions the police were using.

At this point, the police were patrolling W. Florissant in armored vehicles and intermittently firing tear gas canisters. The two reporters needed to cross W. Florissant to return to their car, and intended to walk along a street running parallel to W. Florissant until they could cross the avenue in an area not filled with tear gas. Devereaux described the ensuing situation:

“At one point the police vehicle takes a left into the neighborhood we’re in. If they take another left they’ll be on the street we’re on. We decided we should identify ourselves as press as they’re coming into neighborhood, to make sure they know we’re journalists. We come out from the shadows with our hands up. I have a press ID card in my hand, yelling, ‘Press! Press! Press! We’re journalists! Media! Media! Media!’”

Police in one vehicle shone a light on the pair and directed them forward. They advanced, still shouting “Press!” and were directed towards another armored vehicle. As they were approaching that vehicle, the group of officers in the vehicle that had initially directed them to move forward began to fire rubber bullets at them. Devereaux was struck once in the back and Hermsmeier was shot twice. According to Devereaux, the police had “made no verbal commands that we had heard” before beginning to shoot.

The reporters dove behind a car to get out of the line of fire, at which point police swarmed around them. They repeatedly told police that they were press just trying to get to their car. Police arrested them using plastic flex cuffs and put them in the back of an armored car. Devereaux stated, “They didn’t tell us we were under arrest, and didn’t tell us why. They asked us why we were out, and I said the same reason you are- we’re working, we’re journalists.”

Police defenders will claim that journalists who overstep their bounds at a dangerous scene like the Ferguson protests should expect to land in trouble. Fair enough, if that’s what happens. But, as the report makes clear, time and again police shot first (metaphorically or actually) and asked questions later.

By its very nature, a report cataloging abuses overlooks the many instances when things worked as they should. Indeed, the report carries this important caveat:

This report is not a blanket condemnation of the law enforcement officers who policed the Ferguson protests. Many of the officers no doubt acted in good faith and were trying to protect the safety of their fellow officers and those present at the protests under difficult circumstances. At some points during the protests, individuals present in the crowds were armed and fired weapons. Several of the journalists interviewed for this report acknowledged that some police officers allowed them to do their jobs without interference, and that the police attitude towards the press varied depending on who was on duty and was generally more hostile at night than during the day.

But the PEN report, in summaries of multiple confrontations, makes plain what really motivated many arrests and other harassment: The police didn’t want witnesses to their extreme overreactions as they made war on residents and protestors. And good luck with that tactic. When every cellphone and Twitter account can be used to “report” the news, shutting down professional newsgathering fails at its primary mission, to conceal, while at the same time guaranteeing an over-reliance on amateur reports that probably lack verification and might only repeat rumors.

Contrary to myth, the press is not naturally antagonistic to police. In fact, the real problem is that journalists usually report police allegations against crime suspects without skepticism and regularly hype violent crime, feeding a perception that we live in an out-of-control, predatory world. Reporters and police can be personal allies, sharing a common experience of exposure (albeit in different ways and to differing degrees) to trauma that most people would find intolerable.

But, when the press actually does its job as a public watchdog, police must respect and accommodate that — and remember that their authority is not absolute in a free society.

Viewed through a straw, with distortions

That will teach me to skip The New York Times‘ normally fatuous Styles section. Nick Bilton, in his new technology-culture column “Disruptions” for Styles (he recently jumped there from the Times‘ Bits blog on the business desk), wrote a fascinating account of how the celebrated citizen journalists on Twitter mangled, either intentionally and not, the news they supposedly reported from the front lines of the Ferguson, Missouri, protests.

I admit, this fits with my world view. As I most recently ranted, anonymous, independent “reporters” on Twitter lack my trust and produce fragmented reports lacking the coherence of true narrative. Bilton makes that point by quoting Brian Stetler on the inherent weakness of battlefield reports, which view the overall action “through a straw.”

Now Bilton adds evidence to support another criticism of it: Inaccuracy. When performed by amateurs who imagine facts to explain what they’ve seen or flat out lie to support their cause, the Twitterstream is worse than confusing and unverified; it’s deceptive.

This, of course, is what we worry about when we talk about trust. Why should I believe what you’re reporting if I don’t know who you are? This doubt can be overcome when multiple people report the same or similar things as they happen. Even then, we need the skills of the journalist — if not the actual journalist himself or herself — to verify that what was seen was what it seemed.

But, then, with the sort of problems Bilton documents, we’re back to not being sure we can believe anything. Especially when fabrications get repeated in an echo chamber and journalists slow to repeat the rumors or actively debunking them get attacked by the Twitter mob.

Here’s a taste of what Bilton found out about the #Ferguson Twitterstream:

Take, for example, one rumor that circulated on Twitter on Aug. 18 about a white pickup truck that was supposedly offering protesters free rides when the police arrested everyone onboard. “They’re just arresting people in this truck for … no reason other than they are there or trying to get home,” wrote @graceishuman on Twitter.

But David Carson, a photographer with The St. Louis Post-Dispatch who was embedded with the police officers who pulled over the pickup, said that police arrested 12 passengers, two of whom had guns, and found a Molotov cocktail in the truck bed.

In another example, Matt Pearce, a national reporter for The Los Angeles Times, noted that a series of tweets on Aug. 17 claimed that protesters had looted a McDonald’s for containers of milk to alleviate eye pain from police tear gas.

But that didn’t happen, either. Mr. Pearce said that the windows at that McDonald’s had been broken earlier by people with children trying to seek shelterfrom tear gas, and that store employees had actually handed protesters the milk.

Just because we point these problems out doesn’t mean Twitter lacks value, or that there’s no place for citizen journalists. I simply use cases like this to keep our skeptic’s glasses firmly in place, and to keep pointing out the irreplaceable value of the professional journalist, trained to verify what we think we’ve seen and heard.

The journo-dinosaur speaks

Another breaking-news crisis, another round of social-media celebration of itself. Count on seeing and hearing in the days ahead more posts like this, claiming that all we need to know about #Ferguson comes to us via Twitter. A few thoughts about that:

The events in Ferguson, Missouri, demand two things: a steady, real-time gaze at all that is happening on the streets, plus reported, authenticated context. The stream of posts on Twitter and elsewhere are mostly only capable of the former.

One of my handicaps as a journalism critic is that I don’t watch television news, so I have no clue what the networks are doing with the story of the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in a police shooting last Saturday. My comparison of the social-media stream to reported journalism told in story form is limited to the written word, and the visuals that accompany the words. That said, here are a few points to consider as we consume fast-breaking updates:

  • The two are not mutually exclusive. “Real” journalists tweet with the best of them.
  • So who’s real? Not just employees of the much-maligned mainstream media, that’s for sure. Witness accounts can be just as valuable, or more so. But that leads to the most critical question….
  • Who says? That’s the most useful question any editor can ask of a story she’s vetting. And it’s what all of us must ask as we see the latest batch of retweeted reports from the street: Who are you? Why should I trust you? How do I know you saw this, and aren’t just repeating a rumor? If you did see it, how do we know what you didn’t see? Eyewitness statements are notoriously unreliable. Even when someone accurately and faithfully describes what he saw, the journalist in me wants to know what happened immediately prior, and why.
  • Which is why responsible news organizations assign multiple reporters to a story like this: people on the street, supplemented by people who will talk to sources with direct knowledge of the events for a more well-rounded picture.

Professional journalism, when done well, offers verification. It asks the questions we all have about the meaning of what we’re witnessing in person or vicariously. And it assembles facts in a coherent story that puts random bits into an understandable context. It may take a few more hours for that to happen, but it’s worth the wait.

Repeating and commenting on second- and third-hand accounts by anonymous strangers is not reporting. You’re not covering Ferguson, you’re talking about it. If you’re there and you post what you see, you’re contributing to the fuller picture we all need. The accumulation of such posts by many observers begins to add up to something significant and irreplaceable. But it’s still not everything we need.

By all means, let’s use Twitter et al. to their full advantage. I’m watching it intently for the most urgent updates and to spot observers I hadn’t encountered before who are worth following. I also count on it as a check against mainstream-media mistakes, distortions, and omissions, of which there have been and will be many.

Then I’ll also read the day-after news stories, and wait for the week- and month-after analyses that tell us what part of that real-time picture wasn’t what it seemed. That’s the part of this process that I fear gets left out when people think they know the story strictly from images and 140-character bursts.