Ferguson may be on the other side of the state, but its issues of race, education and opportunity, as well as questions about policing and court systems, highlight a simple reality: “Ferguson” could happen anywhere.
The issues and events collectively known as “Ferguson” also are a lesson in understanding that the right to assemble as an act of free speech must be balanced with the need to provide public safety and to ensure the ability of journalists to report the news as part of a free press.
As a journalism professor at Saint Louis University — about 12 miles from Ferguson — I have been reminded the past year of the obligation that educators have to prepare students to be better journalists, communicators and citizens. At SLU, our mission of social justice shares a resounding connection to the tenets of journalism: Journalism is a public service profession, with news workers who act as watchdogs providing information and analysis.
Ferguson reinforced the necessity of journalism. The public’s reliance on the media increases exponentially during a crisis as people seek to understand the situation and make sense of it. Social media has become a conduit for information access and dissemination in times of unrest. Last August, for example, #Ferguson was the most common Twitter hashtag in the world.
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Though much of what appeared on social media during that time was not objective journalism, it demonstrates the innate human desire to communicate our experiences. Journalists play an essential role in helping people share their stories and construct an accurate narrative of issues and events as they unfold. Reporters used social media in the days following Michael Brown’s death to provide continuous live reports of what was happening in Ferguson. Twitter was a platform that was as important — if not more so — to journalists than their traditional print and broadcast formats. People across the globe relied on journalists to provide ongoing accounts of the tumult as well as analysis of the issues that contributed to it.
In classes at SLU and colleges throughout the area, we incorporate events in Ferguson as teaching tools because our students want to talk about what’s happening in their community. Ferguson was a story that broke on Twitter, and journalists live-tweeted coverage for days. Activists used Twitter to organize and to commit acts of journalism by sharing information and photos from the scene. Three journalists, along with dozens of protesters, were arrested in August 2014 and charged this month for allegations that include trespassing and interfering with police. The recent charges are a reminder that although the First Amendment protects freedom of the press, members of the press do not possess any greater rights than members of the public.
Social media, for all of the benefits it offers with immediate global distribution, also can be isolating. Depending on whom a Twitter user follows, he or she can be immersed in biased narratives that merely support beliefs they already hold. In situations like Ferguson, it is journalists’ responsibility to not only convey facts via social media and traditional reports but to offer analysis of all sides of the issue and investigate solutions to the problems they see — and perhaps challenge people to see an issue in a different light and think differently than they had before.
Amber Hinsley is a journalism professor at Saint Louis University. She is a former journalist and co-editor of the book “The Future of News.” Her research related to Ferguson examines how journalists, activists and others use social media as a strategic communication tool.