Let’s face it: The moment news gatherers take on a story that turns on racial justice, most of them contend with a severe lack of trust. Americans are only half convinced that the news media are ever worth their confidence, according to survey data. For communities of color, the reliability, credibility and even objectivity of the news are especially in question because of a troubled track record of stereotyping and neglect.
So it was in Ferguson, Mo., as journalists struggled to tell the story of the community uprising after unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot dead by a white police officer. Reporters, photographers and producers faced the fundamental challenge of all journalism: earning the trust of both sources and audiences.
Traditional media took days to recognize the significance of the events unfolding over the first few days after Brown’s death. But Twitter was afire with the #Ferguson hashtag and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown commentary on media portrayals of black victims. To many Twitter users it seemed a repeat of media inattention in the wake of the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, also black, unarmed and a teen, in Florida by a neighborhood vigilante who has identified as both white and Hispanic.
In both cases, the black American community at the heart of the story turned to social media to call attention to the incident and the issues they felt needed airing. St. Louis alderman Antonio French, who had already been tweeting regularly about social concerns in St. Louis, walked among the Ferguson protestors, urged calm and showed armored vehicles confronting community members in his posts on Twitter and Vine. Reporters, police officers and neighborhood leaders soon followed suit with their own version of events.
True enough, Twitter users can choose to follow only those with whom they agree. But more importantly, some commentators propose that people across the racial spectrum turn to Twitter because they see the news media as out of touch.
Twitter may win people’s trust because they can be certain they will hear the perspectives of members of their own communities. They can join in debate. They can relate to the ideas expressed and the voices that tell the story.
In Ferguson, reporters faced a chaotic situation coupled with police hostility. Yet the results of their efforts often seemed superficial. Ricardo Torres, a Milwaukee-based freelance journalist, compared much of the work to weather reporting. Journalists described the social climate as if it were nature on the move, he said, with “tensions building” and the “police on edge.” Many of them missed the opportunity to provide a three-dimensional picture of the outpouring of anger and concern.
What forces had shaped it? What was the story of the community in which it happened? What was the broader social context in which we all play a role?
In an interview, Elise Hu, part of the NPR team that reported from Ferguson, offered some tips on how to prepare for a fair, thorough and accurate telling of such a volatile moment. Some of her suggestions included:
Work With a Diverse Team
The NPR crew included a Latina, an African-American man and woman, an Asian woman and a white man. “It opened some doors,” Hu said. The team also worked closely with the local St. Louis member station, which provided knowledge about the local community, its history and current concerns.
Do your Homework on Social Issues Surrounding Race and Class
Some people think that we all live within society, so we’re all somehow experts on social issues. The NPR team had spent more than a year reporting comprehensively on the complexities of race, identity and culture. “We had laid all that groundwork of understanding race,” Hu said. As a result, they knew how to talk about difficult topics and to reach beyond the action on the streets.
Show the Diversity of the Community you are Covering
Many audiences around the country saw only three blocks of Ferguson over and over, perpetually in conflict and distress. Hu said her team felt it was important to show what else was going on. Hu did stories like the one that described the 150 area teachers who came out to clean up the streets. Such work helped show the people of Ferguson as more than caricatures of angry disadvantaged Americans.
Meet Your Audiences Where They Are
Ferguson news made NPR’s “All Things Considered” on a regular basis, but Hu said she also made sure to communicate real-time on Twitter because she knew that’s where the community was talking. And despite her expectations, she met a lot of young black and Hispanic men who told her they loved NPR. She learned something from those conversations.
“We shouldn’t use the fact that we think our audience is white to do a certain kind of story, because our emerging audience is very different,” she said. Hu was speaking about public radio, but her advice holds across the board.
Sally Lehrman is the Senior Fellow for Journalism Ethics at the Markkula Center. She is an independent journalist who reports on science and social issues.
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