It has been a stressful, sleep-deprived 11 days for St. Louis journalists, ever since teenager Michael Brown was shot on August 9 by a police officer in the suburb of Ferguson, MO, provoking protests and riots unlike anything the city has ever seen. But in the midst of the chaos, local media has largely risen to the enormity of the task of covering the story.
“The work that’s coming out is pretty astonishing,” said Jessica Lussenhop, managing editor of the city’s alt-weekly Riverfront Times, praising not only her own staff but also competitors such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Their photographers are doing amazing work. A lot of the public radio people are out there constantly; the local TV anchors have been putting in crazy hours.”
Many national and international correspondents have done fine reporting in Ferguson, but those looking to find the full story—the most complete portrait of Brown, the protests, and the city—should think local.
The faces of Michael Brown
One of the biggest issues arising in this story has been the choice of photos used to depict Brown. The controversy over the media’s choice of photos in the Trayvon Martin coverage was reignited as widely differing images of Brown, some real and some fake, began to proliferate across the Web. The most interesting piece of media criticism arising from the controversy is the now-viral #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag, in which young African Americans posted pictures of themselves looking friendly and wholesome juxtaposed with pictures in which they appear imposing or angry, to ask the rhetorical question: Which would the media use?
Rather than pick one reply, or resort to blanket outrage, journalists steeped in complex local dynamics offered subtle takes.
“I don’t think it’s invalid that some of these images may have shown him looking angry,” said Lussenhop of the Riverfront Times, who took “photos of photos” of Brown when she visited his grandmother’s house for a profile the day after the shooting. “It’s the same person. It’s a three-dimensional picture. People’s lives are not two-dimensional.” She said that the Times has used a variety of images to give the full picture of Brown.
Another local outlet, though, TV station KSDK, was criticized by fellow area outfits last week for using a picture of Brown that made him appear threatening. The photo shows a serious-looking young man in casual clothes flashing a peace sign—or, in the minds of those with a political axe to grind, a gang sign. According to the photo credit, it was provided to the station by Brown’s family. (KSDK’s news director did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.) But KSDK’s coverage didn’t stop at this one-dimensional representation of Brown. The station does deserve credit for inviting Destiny Crockett, an African-American Princeton student who hails from St. Louis, to sit in on an editorial meeting and take part in a live interview last week after she approached them at an NAACP event with concerns about coverage. “I think we need to be a lot more conscious about the way we portray the black community, the way we portray young black men specifically, and the way we portray the situation that’s happening right now in Ferguson,” Crockett told KSDK’s Kay Quinn.
Of course, the county police threw a wrench into this controversy on Friday, when they released a surveillance video allegedly showing Brown shoplifting at a convenience store and menacing a clerk minutes before his death—even though the police acknowledged that the officer who shot Brown did not stop him because of that incident. The timing of the release seemed designed to reverse perceptions about the young shooting victim while distracting from the simultaneous release of the shooter’s name.
News organizations locally and everywhere else ran the video. Still, most depictions of Brown in local media—visual and otherwise—have drawn an admirably nuanced picture.
In the wake of the shooting, the Post-Dispatch spoke to friends and teachers for a story depicting Brown as a “gentle giant.” Lussenhop for the Riverfront Times, after conversations with Brown’s cousin, grandmother, and other family members, wrote about “a shy, nonviolent kid who loved music and wanted to go to college.” On KTVI-TV, friends and neighbors described “a quiet but outgoing 18-year-old, with plans to start a business and dreams of becoming a star.”
‘Daytime community and nighttime chaos’