As the long-awaited grand-jury decision on whether police officer Darren Wilson will be charged with anything for killing Michael Brown gets closer, the world's media is once again descending onto Ferguson, Missouri, to report on what everyone is assuming will be a spirited round of protests followed by an intense crackdown by the police. With an indictment looking highly unlikely, there is a strong feeling in St. Louis that the response from protesters won't be as peaceful this time around—and the dirty not-so-secret secret is that even if individual reporters don't want the town to turn into a seething mess of Molotov cocktails and tear-gas canisters, if that wasn't a possibly they probably wouldn't be there.
As Detroit-based Fox TV reporter Charlie LeDuff tweeted last week, "Truth be told...the media, including myself...are on riot watch. Let's hope it aint so."
And if things do get out of control, it's likely that many will place blame on the media for making matters worse by exacerbating the already tense situation.
As a local reporter in St. Louis for the Riverfront Times at the time of the shooting, I saw the first wave of protests rapidly grow from a predominantly local phenomenon with mostly local reporters to a full-scale "media circus." I watched as the news vans swarmed, CNN anchors yelled at me for standing in front of a police siren they were using to light a shot, and it became seemingly impossible to take a photo of protesters without two or three other reporters in the frame.
But speaking strictly for myself (I know at least a few reporters don't agree with me), I didn't really see much of a problem with the influx of outside media. It definitely made my job more difficult, of course—who's the grandma-esque protester with the interesting backstory going to talk to first: a scrubby-looking alt-weekly reporter or the shiny news anchor in a designer suit? And yes, it did feel a bit tacky to be a member of the media when the protester-reporter ratio was hovering at around one-to-one. But it was also exhilarating to see what I believe to be some of the most important issues of our time—racial profiling, police brutality and police militarization—being brought to the forefront of the cable news giants' programming, getting almost the same coverage a bad Carnival cruise gets. And St. Louis County's other problems—such as the way traffic tickets and court fees disproportionately impact the black community—would never have received national attention if not for the media invasion.
But some Ferguson protesters have mixed feelings about the increased media coverage, including Dr. Cornel Fresh (sadly not his real name), who goes by @wyzechef on Twitter.
"This was already big on social media," he told me. "People on Twitter were already on top of it, but the mainstream media let everyone else know about what was going on, even if it was being sensationalized."
That sensationalization Fresh is talking about is the focus on the "riots." Although there was very little rioting in August, it's still a predominant image of the protests and the word that got used to describe what was happening. And as LeDuff noted, it's what the media is back in Ferguson to see.
"The drawback with all the mainstream media being there was that they were always only looking for action," Fresh explained. "And if there was nothing, they would just abort and come back when the violence did kick off."
I know that's true because I did exactly that once or twice.
But without the so-called riot porn—or, more accurately, the police-brutality porn—it's unlikely the Ferguson story would have got the traction it did. After all, police shoot people all the time, and it usually doesn't lead to such a massive story. Truthfully, the cops themselves helped the process along by the way they mismanaged the situation. People in Ferguson were angry after Michael Brown was killed. They came out to protest police brutality. And the police met them in a brutal, intimidating manner. This wasn't the media that did that—it was the St. Louis County Police Department. The media just reported it. And now they're back to report it again if it happens again.
There will probably be some sensationalism in the next round of stories. There are definitely journalists out there trying to look for new angles, and in the process of doing so, some inevitably come across as biased and ignorant. But that's the price of publicity. Ferguson is one of those rare news stories that truly deserves the amount of coverage it's getting. Policing in America is dangerously flawed and must be fixed. And the protesters in Ferguson have pushed the issue onto TV screens and computer monitors around the country. There are many who are uncomfortable with the racial questions that have arisen, but there are also many people who have gained a deeper understanding of systemic racism and police violence. No longer is it a conspiracy theory to talk about police militarization and the sad truth that people of color are overly victimized by police departments across the country. These are conversations that are long overdue and must be had.
The coverage hasn't been perfect, and there will be more gripes from people on all sides of the spectrum as the grand jury announces its verdict and people take to the streets—possibly in jubilation, but more likely in anger. But the media will be watching, and I can only think that that's a good thing.
Ray Downs is currently a reporter at the Broward–Palm Beach New Times. Follow him on Twitter.