How much news coverage of Ferguson is too much?
Judging from the unscientific sampling of opinion I’ve heard over the last two months, St. Louisans have starkly different answers to that question. Some are fed up. Others think news organizations are only beginning to pay appropriate attention to police-community tensions, African American experiences and issues of racial disparity.
The question has been on our minds in the St. Louis Public Radio newsroom, too, since Michael Brown's death. But it’s just one of several questions. Among the others: How can we sort fact from fiction amid strong emotions and rapidly breaking developments? How can we explore the roots and possible solutions for underlying issues? How can we reflect a full picture of St. Louis at a time when our region’s dominant national image is narrow and negative.
And of course, we worry about the question that haunts every journalist: What are we missing?
To some critics, what we’re missing is a sense of proportion. They say the intense media spotlight has perpetuated the protest, distorted perceptions of the community and exaggerated the problems that Ferguson and the nation face.
True, our reporters have encountered protesters who play to the audience. And we’ve worked hard to add the context and nuance about Ferguson that much reporting lacks. Yet we’ve also found that the problems Ferguson has come to symbolize are deep and real. They won’t vanish because we ignore them.
Instead, we aim to explore them. One of best ways to start is to share stories. That helps to bridge the gulf in perception that often separates blacks and whites. In recent weeks, many black St. Louisans have shared their stories about being stopped by police or regarded with suspicion because of their race. That’s a burden most white St. Louisans don’t have to carry, and many weren’t even aware of.
In a remarkable three-part series this week, Tim Lloyd told other revealing stories. Ladue Middle School teacher Vincent Flewellen, who is African American, was on his way to a workshop on how to talk about race and class issues when a white man pulled up next to him in traffic. The man pointed his finger as if it were a gun and mimicked firing. Flewellen thought about turning around. “But if I would have stayed home, he would have won,” Flewellen said. “I kind of pulled myself together and went on with the night as planned.”
Later, Flewellen led his eighth graders in discussions related to Ferguson, and Lloyd sat in. Kids can talk more easily than adults about these sensitive matters, Flewellen has found. Students Miriam Sokora and Alivia Brock proved his point.
Miriam: “I’ve never thought that I’d be walking down the street and get pulled over by police saying ‘What are you doing?'”
Alivia: “As for me I have to look around the street all the time. Since I’m black I have to walk around the street and look for police officers. Sometimes I even have to put my hands up a little just to show I have nothing.”
Miriam: “I think that’s sad.”
St. Louis County police officer Shawn McGwire told St. Louis Public Radio's Stephanie Lecci what it's like to be on the police line when some protesters are hurling insults, threats, rocks and even firing shots."If we don't maintain peace, then some of these people might get hurt and we don't want these people to get hurt either. It's for our safety. It's for Ferguson's safety, and actually for protesters' safety,"McGwire said.
Yes, Ferguson reporting needs to be done with an appropriate sense of proportion. Here’s mine: What’s happening now will resonate for decades to come in our regional and national politics, public-policy debates, collective psyche and community image. That’s why we need to report as clearly and deeply as possible on the incidents, issues and dynamics as they unfold.
Just as the Jefferson Bank protest was the flashpoint for the civil rights movement here half a century ago, Ferguson is the flashpoint for longstanding problems involving race, fairness and opportunity. Our future will be shaped in this crucible – by the perceptions we form, the leadership that emerges and the commitment we make to solve the problems we face. We hope our reporting will illuminate the process.