SAN DIEGO – Here are four tips for young reporters willing to learn from the mistakes of those caught up in the events of Ferguson, Mo.
• Learn how to cover a story without becoming the story.
• If you want to express opinions, become an opinion writer. But as long as you’re a reporter, keep your opinions to yourself.
• If you slip up and give your opinion, expect people to attack you. So develop a thick skin.
• When there’s a riot and a police officer tells you to move, just move. Don’t debate, disobey and taunt the officer and get it on tape so you can tweet it or put it on your website. Do as he says. Because at that moment, although you may not want to admit it, his job is more important than yours. It has life-and-death consequences.
The last item comes from the fact that, aside from being a journalist, I am the son of a cop. That brings common sense.
With reporters being threatened, arrested, manhandled, berated, shot with rubber bullets and pelted with tear gas projectiles, it is tempting to declare that law enforcement officers in Ferguson are waging a war against the media.
Yet, even thinking this way shows that many reporters have lost their way in covering this story. They seem to think it’s all about them. Some protesters have figured that out, which is why many of them are now harassing and cursing at reporters – demanding, for instance, that journalists distinguish between residents concerned with police violence and outsiders intent on causing mayhem.
If there were a war by police against members of the media, it would certainly make for a good story – one that reporters would love to tell. This won’t come as news to most readers, but there is nothing that journalists like better than talking about themselves, their work or their industry.
The story is also believable given that the law enforcement contingent doing riot control – Ferguson police officers, St. Louis County sheriff’s deputies, Missouri Highway Patrol officers – has acted with reckless disregard for public safety. The fact that the officers are outfitted with military-style equipment, and that they’re being so heavy-handed with protesters, has only created more chaos. So has the fact that, until recently, there didn’t seem to be any strategy for dealing with the protests; the cops appeared to be making it up as they went along. As to where people could stand – the street, a sidewalk, a parking lot – to peacefully protest, the rules changed on a whim. No wonder Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon called in the National Guard.
And yet, the trouble is – judging from much of what has been written, said, photographed and tweeted by journalists, along with protesters and onlookers on the scene – there doesn’t appear to be any evidence to back up the claim that officers are targeting journalists. The police in Ferguson seem to be treating journalists just as badly as they’re treating everyone else. No better, no worse.
This brings us to the heart of the issue. Some reporters are furious that they’re not getting special treatment as members of the media. Because they’re being accompanied by a cameraman, or have press credentials hanging around their necks, they expect deference from police officers. No such luck.
Consider a recent episode involving CNN reporter and anchor Don Lemon. While doing a live shot for the network, Lemon and a crowd of maybe a dozen protesters were told by a police officer to move off the street and onto the sidewalk. The journalist complied but also objected, insisting that he and the crowd had been standing in the street for hours and no one had said anything to them.
“Now you see why people are so upset here,” Lemon said into the camera. “Because we have been here all day. … We’re on national television. So imagine what they are doing to people who you don’t see on national television, the people who don’t have a voice like we do.”
Those who “have a voice” should be careful not to say the wrong thing. Americans already have contempt for the media. Let’s not give them more reasons to feel that way.