With no textbooks on how to cover riots, reporters in Ferguson learning as they go

August 18

The first thing you learn in covering a riot is to expect the unexpected. It’s not just the rioters you have to worry about, say reporters; the authorities can be difficult — and dangerous — too.

Journalists who’ve been covering the ongoing unrest in Ferguson, Mo., for the past week describe being wary of both sides. If they aren’t being threatened by looters, they could be in the path of tear-gas showers and rubber-bullet volleys launched by police. Many journalists have been gassed, and a few have been hurt, although none seriously it seems.

The intensity of the situation is illustrated by the things reporters carry — not just notebooks and cameras, but flak jackets, helmets and gas masks. On Monday, The Washington Post, following the lead of other news organizations, began outfitting its employees with gas masks, purchased at a chain hardware store. Post photographers are among those equipped with an accessory familiar to war correspondents: a blue bulletproof vest emblazoned with the word “PRESS.”

As reporters have discovered over the past week, there’s no journalism textbook on how to cover a riot. There’s also little experience to fall back on: Most of the people covering Ferguson weren’t born yet when American cities were swept up in the urban riots of the 1960s.

Authorities have scrambled, too, to accommodate the invading media army, which now numbers several hundred. Officials established a media zone — an area designated by crime-scene tape — on West Florissant Avenue near the turmoil last week. The “pen” is designed to enable journalists to view officials’ response to the protesters and rioters, and to offer a central spot for news updates. Reporters were told they risked arrest if they left the designated area.

Two problems: There wasn’t much to see from the pen, and the official updates weren’t very helpful. The public information officers “were utterly useless,” said one reporter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his publication hadn’t approved an interview. They “could not answer basic questions [and] gave factually incorrect answers in a handful of cases,” he said.

This has forced reporters to wander farther afield in search of the story, often into dangerous territory.

“I’ve been through [Hurricane] Katrina, so I’ve been around the block, and this might rank right up there” in terms of uncertainty and risk, said Trymaine Lee, an MSNBC reporter who is covering events in the suburban St. Louis town. “There were a few moments when you felt that anything could happen.”

Ferguson has been wracked by looting and violent mobs on and off since an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was gunned down by a white patrol officer, Darren Wilson, on Aug. 9. Early Monday, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) ordered National Guard troops to quell the disturbances after a midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew proved ineffective on Sunday.

Journalists such as writer-
photographer Amy K. Nelson have defied official police lines to report from the center of the violence and confrontation (three reporters were detained by police early Monday but quickly released). Nelson has covered war zones before but has never been on the front lines. “This is by far the most violent place or assignment I’ve ever been involved with,” she said.

Nelson, a contributing editor to Animal New York, an arts and culture Web site that also covers politics and police corruption, has been threatened by looters who objected to her taking their picture. She has dodged flying tear-gas canisters. Neither bothered her much, she said.

Gunshots are another story.

“You can see tear gas coming at you,” she said. “What’s least predictable are the bullets. There’s nothing to protect me when the bullets start flying, and they can start flying from anyone.”

But Nelson muses, “Maybe because I have deep psychological issues, but for me it’s a challenging environment but also an enjoyable one. I know that could be viewed as disturbing to a lot of people, but it’s a comfort zone for me. I kind of enjoy being in the chaos and weaving through it to bring some clarity to the story.”

The Post’s Wesley Lowery, one of two reporters who were arrested last week in Ferguson, said he felt little threat from those on the street until Friday night, when residents apparently were joined by outsiders.

“Ninety percent of the time I was there, the threat has been from the police,” he said. “Friday was the first time I felt afraid of” civilians.

One of the issues in live media coverage of any unrest is whether the coverage itself creates a self-perpetuating cycle, as people see the stories and join in.

St. Louis TV station KMOV-TV has curtailed some of its live play-by-play of the disturbances to avoid inflaming the situation, said Brian Thouvenot, its news director.

“The debate here is what does the public need to know, and when that might be a threat to their safety,” he said. “Do we need to break into our [regular programming], or do we cover it on the [regularly scheduled] news? The last thing we want to do is come off inciting more violence or egging on a situation that is not in anyone’s best interest. This is our community, too.”

But sometimes the news media can’t avert its gaze. As the violence flared anew Sunday night, KMOV dropped its regular programming and resumed continuous coverage of the events in Ferguson.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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