St. Louis professor on journalism lessons from Ferguson: ‘The impact is ongoing.’
Last August, as journalists flooded into St. Louis and Ferguson, Missouri to cover the death and the aftermath of Michael Brown, Amber Hinsely was watching. She tracked the hashtags as they evolved, the journalism that resulted and the growing tensions between police and the press. She said then "...for St. Louis, this is really our first big story that broke on Twitter. You saw it unfold on Twitter.”
Hinsely, an assistant professor of communications at Saint Louis University, spoke with Poynter again via email about teaching lessons from Ferguson to journalism students and how the story has changed journalists in St. Louis. She also spoke about updating her fall teaching to include the charges filed against The Washington Post's Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post's Ryan Reilly.
What has changed (in your classroom, in St. Louis, in the country) in the last year?
At Saint Louis University, we’ve had campus-wide discussions as well as ones in classrooms about the death of Michael Brown, policing and race relations in our city, and media coverage – much of which have centered on the university’s mission of social justice.
For me in the classroom, that social justice mission ties so strongly to the journalistic tenets of public service and being watchdogs. When classes started last fall, I was pulling up the Twitter feeds of (mostly local) journalists to show how they had been using it to live tweet events in Ferguson as well as to share information and have conversations. Students were already following what was happening in Ferguson, but in class we were able to discuss and dissect how journalists were using Twitter as a real-time reporting and engagement platform. We also looked at ways activists and others were using Twitter to do a lot of the same things journalists were doing—they were documenting what was happening and sharing it with the world. I think that for many of the students, it was their first time seeing Twitter as a tool to promote social justice in a tangible way, and to see the connect between journalism and social justice.
A few weeks into the fall term, students got a very up-close experience with these issues when hundreds of protestors gathered on campus during the Ferguson October demonstrations. A handful of protestors stayed in tents near the clock tower in the middle of campus, and after a few days of negotiations, they established the Clock Tower Accords with university administrators. The agreement included greater university support for African-Americans students at SLU and in the region, as well as the establishment of a commissioned artwork, a national conference, and a diversity speakers’ series.
In the city as well as the country, people are talking more about race. St. Louis has taken a hard look at how municipalities in northern St. Louis County (where Ferguson is located) had structured their courts in ways that stacked the deck, so to speak, against minorities and lower-income residents. They’re working on improving the court system, as well as policies in some of the smaller cities here that relied on law enforcement as a source of revenue.
Several organizations have been created to help Ferguson residents and others in the area, such as Ferguson 1000 and Operation Help or Hush. The Urban League is turning the QuikTrip that was burned last summer into a job-training site. Hopefully all of these “small” changes and improvements will lead to greater understanding and an improved region for all of its residents.
What hasn't changed?
Although court reform is an important change that needs to be made in St. Louis County, we have deeper issues that need to be addressed in St. Louis and around the country. We’re still a city with racial divides exacerbated by income inequality, inadequate funding and support for public education, and a lack of training/opportunity for employment. Unfortunately, we’re not the only city with these issues and we’re all struggling with sustainable ways to facilitate long-term change.
This story started on Twitter, went local, then national and then international. But all along, Michael Brown's death and everything that happened after in Ferguson has remained a local story for St. Louis journalists. How have they done?
I’ve been so impressed with the ways that local journalists and media organizations have covered the issues collectively called “Ferguson.” Of course, they have covered events such as the grand jury’s non-indictment and the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death this week. As you know, the Post-Dispatch photographers won a Pulitzer for their amazing work in the days after Michael Brown was killed, and they continue to do that.
The Post-Dispatch also has led the coverage of questionable practices in municipal courts and we’re starting to see real reform in the system as a result. St. Louis Public Radio launched the “We Live Here” podcast series that looks at the region’s struggles with race through the lenses of class, education, criminal justice, and health. The Nine Network, our PBS affiliate, has focused several shows on similar issues.
Local media organizations also organized town hall-style discussions—some of which were televised and some which were not—to try to help bring the community together.
We spoke last August about how you could teach a journalism course of what happened in Ferguson. What lessons from last year did you incorporate into your teaching?
You could teach so many different classes that focus on issues related to Ferguson: media law, social media, crisis reporting, activist journalism, etc. I, along with other faculty at SLU and universities in our area, have incorporated elements of these into classes and will continue to do so because our students want to talk about what’s happening in their community. We’re trying to take these terrible events and help our students learn from them to become stronger journalists and communicators, as well as more responsible citizens.
Beyond the class examples I mentioned earlier, I’ve had several in- and outside-of-class discussions with students about protecting their personal safety and knowing their rights as journalists— which were conversations I never had as an undergraduate and rarely had as a newspaper reporter. Prior to last August, class discussions about First Amendment rights and personal safety were hypothetical situations and case studies that we reviewed. With Ferguson, it was real. Some students—either for class projects, campus media or their own blogs—wanted to cover subsequent marches and events, and we strategized safer ways to do that or alternative methods of getting the story.
We’ve had more journalists come into our classes or taken our students to their newsrooms to hear their first-hand experiences, which are incredibly powerful for students and instructors. Local journalists have been generous with their time and we’ve benefitted from that.
We also spoke about how Ferguson got a lot more journalists in St. Louis on Twitter. You wondered back then if they'd stick around. Have they?
Yes! I’m working on a research project about Twitter use related to events in Ferguson, and I have interviewed several local journalists. Covering Ferguson via Twitter was as important—if not moreso—as reporting through their traditional outlets. Their news organizations and colleagues recognized the connections and engagement made possible by Twitter. Anecdotally, I’d say the number of local journalists active on Twitter has increased exponentially in the past year.
How do you think your students will be impacted as professional journalists by what happened in Ferguson a year ago?
The impact is ongoing. I’m updating my fall syllabi to include the charges filed this week against Wesley Lowery and Ryan Reilly. As a teaching tool, what has happened and continues to happen related to Ferguson is powerful and meaningful because it’s 12 miles from our university.
Hopefully, student journalists are leaving SLU with an expanded perspective on what it means to cover a crisis: use the tools available to them to report objectively, act ethically, advocate their responsibility to be watchdogs, stand up for their rights as professionals, protect their own safety, and provide thoughtful analysis of the issues that led to the unrest.