Last week, freelance journalist Ryan Schuessler blogged about his time in the media pit with fellow journos covering the tragedy in Ferguson. It serves as a grim reminder of what happens when your newsroom resembles the cast of Dawson’s Creek. Schuessler illustrates the bad behavior he witnessed:
-Cameramen yelling at residents in public meetings for standing in way of their cameras
-Cameramen yelling at community leaders for stepping away from podium microphones to better talk to residents
-TV crews making small talk and laughing at the spot where Mike Brown was killed, as residents prayed, mourned
-A TV crew of a to-be-left-unnamed major cable network taking pieces out of a Ferguson business retaining wall to weigh down their tent
-Another major TV network renting out a gated parking lot for their one camera, not letting people in. Safely reporting the news on the other side of a tall fence.
-Journalists making the story about them
-National news correspondents glossing over the context and depth of this story, focusing instead on the sexy images of tear gas, rubber bullets, etc.
-One reporter who, last night, said he came to Ferguson as a “networking opportunity.” He later asked me to take a picture of him with Anderson Cooper.
As Alyssa Rosenberg pointed out in a recent Washington Post article, renting out a gated parking lot isn’t the worst offense, especially when the safety of employees is at stake. But the other behavior is definitely abhorrent, and needs to be addressed. Reporters and camera crews descended upon Ferguson and took pictures of residents in the middle of deeply personal moments before talking to them. They acted as though they were on an African safari, not in the middle of small Midwestern town mired in racial animus.
When I tell aspiring journalists on and offline to quit the game and make meth instead, I’m only half-joking. It is a thankless job with little glory and horrible fucking pay. There will be days when you will cover stories so heinous that you’ll fight the urge to chuck it all and become a comic book villain. Instead, you will find refuge at the bottom of a martini glass or some really awful television. But this is the job we signed up for, the one we went into thousands dollars of debt to pursue.
And in our pursuit for truth, it’s important to keep in mind the humanity of those trusting us to tell their stories. Not every silent prayer is fit for public consumption, not every candlelight vigil needs a play-by-play. There is an appalling lack of sensitivity when covering stories like these, mainly because the majority of the people covering them have had limited contact with folks outside their social strata. That myopia is not only apparent in their behavior, but in the questions they ask and in the stories they file. It is why certain outlets feel comfortable pointing out the unbearable whiteness of their rivals while ignoring their own. It is why a television reporter can ask someone–with a straight face–how it feels to “finally have their moment” hours after they’ve been tear gassed.
Hopefully, when journalism professors and media experts talk about Ferguson in the months and years to come, there will be nuanced discussions about handling tragedies with care that will be a little more involved than an uncomfortable shrug and a Poynter e-seminar.