“Soon the television cameras will get packed up,” reflected Alex Altman for Time the day after Michael Brown’s funeral, “leaving a town that has become the latest shorthand for America’s racial divide to figure out how to translate the energy, intensity and anger of the past two weeks into concrete change.”
For many foundations, the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri raise a complex set of issues that cut across program areas: criminal justice, entrenched racism, poverty, political polarization, and more. But for media funders in particular, this flashpoint has revealed disturbing dynamics of crisis reporting in the U.S., and a newly urgent set of concerns about how Americans learn about — and participate in reporting on — unrest in their communities.
Understanding this shifting ground is crucial for supporting high-impact investments in media production, infrastructure and policy that move beyond the hit-and-run coverage that has come to characterize national media spectacles.
“Historically, the response to these tragic deaths follows a predictable pattern: local community outrage and protest marches. Community vigils are organized to pay homage to the victim. Investigations and reviews are commissioned. A full-throttle media response, with editorials voicing concern and talking heads providing crisp journalistic analysis on Sunday morning talk shows,” write California Endowment CEO Robert Ross and Skillman Foundation President/CEO Tonya Allen — co-chairs of the Executives Alliance to Expand Opportunites for Boys and Men of Color.
“Then, as the weeks go by, the news quickly fades and the devastated families of these young men are left to grieve alone. The mainstream media loops back for the courtroom drama, then fades again after the verdict. Then it’s business-as-usual, at least until the next incident….Let us not make the same mistake this time. As a nation, we must not be afraid to take a different course.”
Media funders have many opportunities to help reset the course. Here are just a few key areas of focus.
Recognizing First Responders
While TV remains the dominant source for Americans to get their news at home those iconic cameras were not the first on the scene. Citizen and independent journalists, “hactivists” and others flocked to cover the protests, equipped with little more than mobile phones.
For those tuning in early to the unrest, the “terrible live stream,” as author Robin Sloan describes it on Medium, offered the first and most vivid glimpse of events on the ground. “The Revolution May Not Always Be Televised, But It Damn Sure Will Be #Tweeted” quipped one HuffPo headline. Suddenly, as David Carr reported in an August 17 New York Times piece, “Ferguson became #Ferguson.”
“Just as the world was able to see the impact of riots in Tahrir Square in Egypt during the Arab Spring, or military action against civilians in Ukraine, so Twitter provided a gripping window into the events in Ferguson as they were occurring, like a citizen-powered version of CNN,” wrote Matthew Ingram for Gigaom on August 14. “In a very real sense, citizen-powered journalism filled the gap left by traditional media, which were either incapable or unwilling to cover the news.”
Reporters in the Crosshairs
But, as Ingram observes, reporters from more traditional news outlets did begin to arrive — and just as promptly began to be arrested. At an August 18 press conference, Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain said that officers were having trouble distinguishing “who’s a journalist and who’s not,” given the similarity in equipment carried by observers and the press.
Despite his assurances, as violence escalated, reporters were not just increasingly dispersed and cordoned off, but tear gassed and apprehended even when they identified themselves. Here, Ryan Deveraux of The Intercept — an online publication of First Look Media, founded by philanthropist Pierre Omidyar — details his arrest by heavily armored officers.
Others from mainstream outlets were also detained, including The Washington Post, Sports Illustrated and The Financial Times. Photos from Scott Olsen of Getty Images, who was arrested and released on August 18, have been among the most moving depictions of the demonstrations.
Such shows of force may be shocking to U.S. media observers, but for reporters, funders and advocates monitoring similar protests elsewhere, they have a familiar feel.
“Policing that singles out minorities is a global problem,” writes Open Society Justice Initiative Program Officer Marc Krupanski, “particularly when the police do not come from the communities they are supposed to serve, a problem documented across Europe as well as in Brazil, Colombia, Canada, South Africa, and Australia.” He details examples of participatory media projects that help young people report such situations, including street-level video monitoring of police activities in New York, and the collection of stories from those who experience police discrimination by youth activists in Barcelona. (See also the series of powerful #Ferguson photos, such as the one featured above, that documentary photographer Lon Lowenstein has been posting to OSF’s Instagram account this week )
Moments like these offer U.S. funders a chance to learn from and collaborate with their peers working on international media development and press freedom. Funders might, for example, join forces to support more resources that help networked journalists protect themselves and their sources — useful both at home and abroad. In turn, domestic investments might have a global impact, since reporting on such conflicts quickly travels beyond national borders.
Algorithms and Access
Relying on social media as an early warning system for breaking news still has many pitfalls, however. Soon after #Ferguson and related hashtags began to crest, media observers began noting markedly different types of information showing up in their social streams.
In a much-shared August 14 piece, “What Happens to #Ferguson Affects Ferguson,” UNC Assistant Professor Zeynep Tufekci argues that online coverage of Ferguson reveals issues related to net neutrality and algorithmic filtering. “It’s a clear example why net neutrality is a human rights issue; a free speech issue; and an issue of the voiceless being heard, on their own terms.”
Times have changed, she suggests: “Now, we expect documentation, live-feeds, streaming video.” But while she found these in abundance on Twitter at the start of the protests, when she turned to Facebook: “nada.” She surmised that it took additional time for Facebook’s filtering mechanism to make reports posted by her friends visible in her feed.
“Algorithmic filtering, as a layer, controls what you see on the Internet. Net neutrality (or lack thereof) will be yet another layer determining this. This will come on top of existing inequalities in attention, coverage and control,” writes Tufekci.
Jesse Holcomb of the Pew Research Center digs a bit deeper in an August 25 post, “Where Was Ferguson in My Facebook Feed?”. What users see on Facebook is a result of not just how the Facebook algorithm functions but how users choose to use the platform — i.e. both what they post, and who they choose to friend.
“Among Twitter news followers, 27% said they get most of their news links from news organizations or journalists, compared with 13% among Facebook news followers,” Holcomb writes. “Ultimately, a social network full of journalists will probably result in a different picture of the world than one full of friends and family. But there is still much that the public research community does not know about how these different variables work together.”
Bolstering Media Research
A nonpartisan “fact tank,” the Pew Research Center is a subsidiary of Pew Charitable Trusts. Year after year, their indispensible audience research exemplifies the role that philanthropy continues to play in supporting long-term inquiry into the volatile media ecosystem.
For another example, see this in-depth analysis of the five phases (or “acts”) of coverage about the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin. Co-authored by Erhardt Graeff, Matt Stempeck and Ethan Zuckerman of the MIT Center for Civic Media, the examination finds that “broadcast media is still important as an amplifier and gatekeeper, but that it is susceptible to media activists working through participatory media to co-create the news and influence the framing of major controversies.” Supported by sophisticated headline crunching and network visualizations, this nuanced conclusion refutes simple accounts that cede the debate to either mainstream stalwarts or digital upstarts.
The Center itself was founded in 2007 through a four-year grant from the Knight Foundation. This particular analysis uses Media Cloud, a sophisticated “link-following” toolset jointly built with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, with support from the Ford, Open Society and MacArthur Foundations. As we’ve reported in our AIM section, building such tools for evaluating the impact of various reporting and strategic communications campaigns is a difficult, iterative, multi-year endeavor. Foundations provide unmatched support for this type of R&D.
For communications researchers, deciphering social media interactions is just one of the many vexing questions presented by the events in Ferguson. Other pressing challenges include devising on-the-fly fact-checking methods for a networked news environment besieged by willfully false reports, and puzzling through what it means that global fast food conglomerate McDonalds surfaced during these demonstrations as a local hub for civic engagement.
“Say what you will about the nutritional and gustatory quality of McDonald’s; its food is affordable, expedient, and widely available. Its Wi-Fi is too, and that has turned the iconic American food chain into an exercise in open, democratic assembly,” reports Quartz reporter Adam Epstein.
Resourcing Community News
So, what happens to both Ferguson and #Ferguson once the crowd simmers back down to just a lunchtime rush, the satellite trucks pull out, and residents and police are left to reassemble the shredded social contract?
Questions about how to find support for local crisis reporting — and what kinds of new skills and capacity are left behind — are of particular interest to local and regional media funders.
Josh Sterns of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation considers these issues in a pair of posts on the Knight Foundation-supported blog, The Local News Lab, which documents “experiments in journalism sustainability.” In an August 20 post, he observes that the growing symbiosis between “citizen” and paid reporters reflects a rising acceptance of journalism as a collaborative process.
Community and nonprofit newsrooms can not only themselves serve as “labs” for the co-creation of news with users, Stearns suggests, but as hubs for refining real-time fact-checking routines and partners for national outlets. He highlights the best practices established by St. Louis Public Radio for curating social media and story leads from listeners, and cites an innovative “fellowship” established by the Huffington Post and crowdfunded journalism site The Beacon Reader to continue collaborative reporting with local resident Mariah Stewart. In a follow-up post, Stearns also calls out the role of alt-weekly Riverfront Times in dedicating staff to round-the-clock coverage on the protests.
Deron Lee of the Columbia Journalism Review also praises a range of local outlets for doggedly walking the beat. Of course, they’ve filed riot pieces, he writes, but “St. Louis media have taken pains to ensure that the rest of the story — the increasingly militarized police presence, the peaceful protesters, and the message that they’re trying to convey — is not buried.” Lee flags video from African-American weekly The St. Louis American, photo galleries from St. Louis Public Radio and a surprisingly popular livestream from independent KARG Argus Radio as standouts. Riverfront Times Managing Editor Jessica Lussenhop has pledged to keep covering this story “once the spotlight has faded,” Lee reports.
It remains to be seen whether coverage by any of these big city outlets will reverse Ferguson’s plight as what Poynter’s Rick Edmonds terms a “news desert.” But public and independent outlets now have a stronger mandate to keep tabs on this formerly neglected suburb — and funders have a role in recognizing such outlets as potential partners for charting new paths to create what Edmonds calls “something else, something new, something digital.”