“Can a black man in the United States get legal justice? That is the story.” Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post stresses that reporting on scene does not mean that he must himself become the scene.
And for most of their ninety minutes of discussion, the other members of the “#Ferguson: Reporting a Viral News Story” panel concluded similarly. Present were Lowery, Emily Bell of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism (an institute functioning within Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and that was responsible for the evening), Antonio French of the City of St. Louis, MO, Alice Speri of VICE News, and Zeynep Tufekci of UNC Chapel Hill. Bell moderated the talk, which focused on these individuals’ own journalistic contributions and concerns, and the sociological understanding of #Ferguson.
The case was the evolving use of social media in reporting a story. French, arguably the first to arrive to the events that would last days, weeks, months longer than anyone might have anticipated, is an area representative and resident. He only learned of what was beginning to happen over Twitter, where local news had published that there had been a “mob” response to the shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by St. Louis police officer Darren Wilson. He questioned the language in use—”mob” rather than “community” response, particularly—and immediately went to visit the scene.
French found a memorial in the works—flowers and teddy bears and framed photographs—beside a line of police and Brown’s crying mother, and was shocked by the lack of documentation there. Why was no one capturing photos? He then took to Twitter and Vine—what Tufekci, a sociologist and certain supporter of social media as means of protest, called the video application’s most significant function to date; he could share these charged visuals with as many as possible. The dearth of images surrounding Ferguson at the moment meant that French’s reaction allowed a much greater audience, viewership, and attention: his response instigated national attention. Intermittent mentions of the panelists’ own Twitter follower counts ensued, as well.
Lowery was one of the first from a major news source to head to Missouri, and Speri arrived not long thereafter. Each had pitched the story to his or her respective employers and took the chance to fly out as soon as possible. Assuming reportage here led them to question their regular medium, the written word, and invest themselves in the new media such a story ultimately required.
This is because Ferguson is not isolated. Its horrific series of events, incidents, and police action is new to American eyes, but “Ferguson” is a place-holder for countless other cities. It appears new because of the ready accessibility we’ve only recently been allowed. Speri, for example, considers herself a writer first, but once she arrived in Ferguson knew that traditional reporting would not do. VICE arranged for a video team to cooperate alongside her storytelling and interviews, if only to account a first-person experience. Speri and Lowery of course questioned how they themselves were treated—for example, Speri having been asked outright by an officer “Do you want to get shot?” and Lowery having been arrested inside a McDonalds restaurant for not evacuating quickly enough—but could not even imagine how the “so openly hostile” law enforcement might be behaving toward its own tax-paying residents, so early on having been sectioned off to the journalists’ corner.
The issue was not a lack of video cameras at this point, but rather the limitations of different mediums for coverage. Tufekci emphasized here the differences between more “grassroots” expression and “elite” investment, even a “Black” Twitter and a media Twitter; there is inevitably a layer between a user and news coverage through whatever medium, Twitter included (however less so). The foremost problem with the likes of television and radio lies in their marriage to advertisers, yet these are still the outlets most commonly consumed.
In this analysis Zeynep Tufekci elaborated. Twitter and short-form video presentations have best served Ferguson—#Ferguson, rather—because they are the most transparent of all broadcasting options available today, the least moderated and censored. In photos that have made it around the world, Lowery stated we must look like some “crazy Americans”; Tufekci countered this by pointing out that, conversely, now America appears as crazy as the rest. She shared anecdotally that “Middle Eastern” Twitter was trying to identify the brands of tear gas used by police from the images (having become so familiar with the variety of canisters in recent years), that the use of rubber bullets as well was nothing new. Her differentiation between Internet subcultures and regions provided a much fuller grasp of the real need for online and immediate reporting: the primacy of the Internet demands as much.
No 3,000-word story could so easily crystallize a situation like Ferguson as a brutal visual of tear gas might. The smallish scale of the protests, too, relative to the tens of thousands of citizens mobilized in different protests worldwide, provides room for far fewer opinions. When asked by an audience member if she’d be returning to Ferguson, Alice Speri said yes, because the fact-checking must continue. In such a limited space, law enforcement’s word is often taken at face value, left unquestioned. Speri wants to seek accuracy further, and see coverage rise to the evolution of the situation, as protestors and police alike more capably organize. Tufekci agreed; renewed media savvy by all participants necessitates fuller storytelling. With too little reporting, there is no room for “curation of information,” she says, which leads to misinterpretation and dissemination of incorrect information. The curation we need, however, entirely depends upon our ability to collect as many details as possible; this can only be achieved by maintaining a presence on the ground.
There was brief grappling with the possibility that their presence outweighs even the protestors’ own. French and Lowery each stated that this was untrue, that the media presence is great yet rarely anywhere so large. This brought the panel to what comprised the real story here, beyond the medium it assumed—this is uncharted territory, incredibly intersectional, one relatively common incident (unfortunately, for the United States) leading to the exposure of many more systemic issues. “#IfTheyGunnedMeDown,” at one point a popular tag on Twitter, reveals the question: When someone is killed, who is the real perpetrator? Furthermore, when is one allowed to assert his or her own humanity? Tufekci argued this to be a most basic right, and that media framing often impedes it. Social media, however, can be utilized to prevent many breeds of dehumanization. The story here is not one of over-reporting or overblown virality, but of our Internet imperatives and the greater justice system.
French, Lowery, Speri, and Tufekci were not disputing the importance of written analysis; the majority of their regular work depends upon it. They were, instead, forwarding the importance of timely access and accessibility. “Hashtag activism” involves reporters just as deeply, requiring their prompt activity in illuminating a story. #Ferguson has not only altered the state of the Union, but its press, too.