Lessons from Ferguson

Your loyal scribe is mingling with fellow journalists at the annual Excellence in Journalism Conference for a few days, a joint meeting of the Radio-Television Digital News Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. He has been asked to lead a workshop on “Lessons from Ferguson.” As this is written, the panel will include an NPR reporter who was there, an online editor, and a leader of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Some of our colleagues in the midst of the protest storm were caught up in some of the actions by police trying to restore order and their experiences prompted organizations such as the Reporters Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union to file legal actions that brought protections of the press’ right to cover the news.

Our panel discussion will no doubt touch on the successes and failures of the coverage and the relations between members of the press and demonstrators and those seeking to restore public order.

As preparations for the convention were winding down, word reached our newsroom that Missouri’s teacher of the year is Chris Holmes, a journalism teacher at St. Louis Hazelwood West High School. The timing of the choice is appropriate and at the same time ironic, we suppose. We immediately got in touch with him and had a fascinating interview. We’ve posted it (or will be posting it) with the story we are doing about him on Missourinet.com. There’s much more to Chris Holmes than his role as a journalism teacher. He helped start a program called “Project Walk,” which helps at-risk students. The first group of students who once saw little hope that they would succeed will be graduating soon. He also sponsors an award-winning Slam Poetry Club, a competitive organization that involves young poets performing their original works. “All people, especially adolescents, want to express their feelings,” he told us.

But we were interested in how he has turned the recent events in Ferguson into a teaching experience for him and a learning experience for his students, regardless of whether they pursue a career in journalism. What happened in Ferguson, however, changed the direction of the teaching/learning experience.

Classes started at his high school on Monday after the Saturday night shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. When he heard on Sunday that there was going to be a protest march that night, he went to Ferguson so he could have his class the next day talk about “ethically, responsibly, and compassionately” covering stories such as that.

When he saw that events were turning violent, he left the area. But to get to his car, he had to pass the Quik Trip that was being looted. He was hit in the head with a brick, a wound that took six stitches to close. His cell phone was stolen. Some women later helped him get to a police area where he stayed for 5 1/2 hours before he could go get his car and go home. What he taught the next day was understandably different from what he though it would be:

“Ninety-eight percent of the people that I met that night were there for the right reason. They were positive. They might have been angry but they were peaceful. They wanted to make a point. They wanted to participate in democracy. And that was all good And there was a very small portion of people who once the others kind of dissipated and left, they turned violent. But that was such a minority of the group that was there that night. And when you watch TV you don’t see it that way. So I wanted my students to realize that. And then we talked about that in a journalistic context. Is what we see on television, and what we hear on the radio and read in the newspapers, is that an accurate representation of reality? What responsibility as journalists do we have to try our best to keep that in context so people actually see the truth?”

He said the experience had given him a great deal of material use in teaching this year’s students and students in the future. And it, and questions from others, gave him some answers to his questions.

“It does provide great opportunities to talk about the difference between journalistic theory and ethics and the reality of the business, which can be ugly. And so many people, because they know I teach journalism, come up to me…and say, “You’re a journalist, what do you think about how the journalists are covering this?” And I’m objective and I see it from both sides but I tried to explain to them that at the time they are reporting on the truth that they see. And however skewed it may seem once other facts come out, at that moment, and they’re in a race to do it against other journalists. That’s their job. And it may not look pretty as it comes out, but we need people to do that.

“At the same time there are some—I live three blocks away from the police officer who shot Michael Brown, in Crestwod, and Channel 5 went to his house with a camera. Put it on TV. So we talked about that in class. Is that necessary? Is that journalism? So, yes, plenty of opportunities for teaching.”

We really enjoyed talking to Chris as reporter to story subject and also as journalist to journalist. We can understand why he’s Missouri’s teacher of the year. Look for our story about him on Missourinet.com.


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One thought on “Lessons from Ferguson

  1. There are millions of safe air miles logged every year but when one plane goes missing or crashes all media coverage is directed to that event. Individuals and organizations who wish to receive coverage or highlight their “message” during “news events” have learned to stage their protests at convenient time and place for maximum coverage by the press. The hypocrisy is that the media powers-that-be know their reporters are being played but continue to participate in the charade. The consumers of news have grown just as jaded as those on the other side of the coverage and give the “reports” little value. We have seen the cameras pull back for a wide shot and have seen the empty, peaceful scene behind the “huge mob”.

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