Ferguson, Missouri, is a dateline that will forever stand as the symbol of what happens after a white cop shoots a black man. Ferguson erupted in protests and violence and picked up steam with similar shootings in New York City, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Baton Rouge and more. “Hands up, don’t shoot” went viral; a movement emerged called Black Lives Matter.
What happens when a newsroom finds itself in that racial vortex? What happens when hundreds of reporters from across the country and across the world find their way to your community to cover a story like Ferguson?
The story exploded within 24 hours, putting enormous pressure on local newsrooms including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the dominant regional media. Lessons learned in Missouri can be applied to your own newsroom when a similar story breaks.
The challenge: “We could keep up with the daily stuff but how do you do that and still look at some of the in-depth issues and the systemic issues that caused Ferguson to happen in the first place?” said Adam Goodman, Post-Dispatch assistant managing editor. Watch Post-Dispatch editors explain their coverage in this video (below).
As the Post-Dispatch struggled to cover the breaking news story and the underlying causes, reporters from all over began parachuting in. Many of them were reporters of color and they felt keenly the importance of accurately portraying the story. One of them, AP’s race and ethnicity reporter Jesse Holland, said it was a story he couldn’t resist.
“The story was too big for me not to go,” Holland told journalists at an NPF seminar. He felt a responsibility to get the story right.
“We have to pay attention to not just the facts of the story. We have to pay attention to how we present those facts,” Holland said.
Back at the Post-Dispatch, the newsroom wrestled with that every day.
“Small words make a big difference,” news editor Ron Wade said. The newspaper was criticized for an online headline that referred to a “mob” that formed after the shooting of Michael Brown. “That angered the community and they saw us as painting them in a certain light that created tensions.” It is a fine line that the media walks to this day.
Holland noted that the United States will become a majority minority nation in a few decades, and that every policy issue has gradations of race.
“Welcome to the race and ethnicity beat because whatever you write about, you’ll be covering race and ethnicity,” Holland said.
Questions for discussion: How does race affect your beat? Have there been times when you were uncomfortable addressing a racial issue?
Editor’s Note: The Post-Dispatch created this video at NPF’s request. Post-Dispatch editor Gilbert Bailon is this year’s recipient of the Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year award for his leadership of the Ferguson coverage.
(UPDATE: On Feb. 3, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a comprehensive project on Ferguson with photos, video, special sections and essential reading. See the package here.)