In December, the St. Louis Public Radio newsroom started planning for Aug. 9, 2019, the fifth anniversary of Michael Brown Jr.’s death and the beginning of months of protests.
Of course we wanted to do the stories that answer the questions everyone has: What has changed since 2014? Where are the people who were involved in the protests? Have relations between police and African American communities improved?
The thing about answering those questions is that every news organization, locally and nationally, would be curious about the same things … and they’d probably tackle telling those stories in much the same way.
We decided we would do some of those stories — about the criminal justice system, changes to the political scene, the impact of Ferguson on artists and on area businesses. But we wanted to do something different, something that would accurately reflect the voices of our region in a way that only St. Louis Public Radio could do.
We decided the best way to reflect on this anniversary would be to hear from people directly about their thoughts, fears, hopes and observations. We wanted to get out of their way so they could tell their stories themselves. We decided this should be a digital-first project because the constraints of doing something like this for radio would mean editing people’s stories in a way that may have cut them short.
This is when we landed on Living #Ferguson: 5 Years After The Killing of Michael Brown Jr.
Listen to Shula Neuman, executive editor of St. Louis Public Radio, talk with St. Louis on the Air host Sarah Fenske about the project:
We designated five reporters to lead the way. Marissanne Lewis-Thompson, Chad Davis, Nancy Fowler, Jeremy Goodwin and Andrea Henderson interviewed more than 20 people. Most of the central characters in this project did not hold high-profile positions during 2014, although a few did.
People were interviewed alone or with each other. Their friends and family came to our studios, where we asked them mostly the same questions: Where were you at the time? Did you have “the talk” with your children about interacting with police? Did you see #Ferguson coming? What are your hopes for the future? How are you doing now?
Most of those questions became the chapters for our project. But the hours-long conversations also revealed much more about how people think about what happened five years ago and how things are going now. There is diversity of thought and opinions among our subjects — sometimes there are even disagreements within families.
We assigned our photojournalist, Carolina Hidalgo, to take portraits of the people we feature. Our digital team of Brent Jones, Alex Rice and Kae Petrin, under the leadership of digital editor Brian Heffernan, built the project from scratch.
Living #Ferguson is designed for the audience to spend time listening to what people have to say. We chose still photographs instead of video or animation because we didn’t want to detract from the content of what people told us. The organizational structure of the seven chapters is a starting point, but there was so much more that is worth hearing that we created an extra chapter for the additional reflections. Lewis-Thompson ended up spending hours with Michael Brown Sr. and his family, so we included an audio profile in a section of the project.
We don’t expect anyone to sit and consume this all at once. Rather, we hope that people return again and again to explore the variety of experiences and perspectives captured in the project. We also want to hear from more people: What reactions do you have to this? What are your recollections of hearing about Michael Brown? What are your hopes for the future?
This project took many months and many, many people to make it happen. We are grateful to those we talked to for giving their time and for trusting us with their stories.
Follow Shula on Twitter: @shuneu
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