The story of Michael Brown’s death and the city of Ferguson, of riots and protests, tear gas, arrests, a funeral and calls for action isn’t just one to watch because it’s news. For some journalism professors in Missouri, it’s a course on how news is created in 2014.
And for Amber Hinsley, Earnest Perry and Dan Kozlowski, it’s now also part of their latest curriculum.
“You could teach a whole course on Ferguson,” said Dan Kozlowski, an associate professor of communications at St. Louis University. This semester, Kozlowski teaches a First Amendment course called “Free Expression,” and he teaches media law in the spring. He’s not teaching a whole course on Ferguson, but there are issues from the past two weeks that will make it into his classes.
They include: access to information (including when documents should be released); free expression on social media (including who gets to decide when people can’t be on social media, such as Twitter removing @TheAnonMessage after it threatened St. Louis County police and hacked the police website); how the web has been useful in spreading information; what it means to peacefully assemble and what role journalists play in that; and what rights journalists and citizens have when they assemble.
Hinsley, an assistant professor in the Communications department at SLU, teaches a multiplatform journalism course. Since the story started, she has paid close attention to Twitter’s role.
“We’ve seen it in other cities,” she said, including the London riots in 2011. “But for St. Louis, this is really our first big story that broke on Twitter. You saw it unfold on Twitter.”
And local media covered the story there from the start, she said. “I think for a lot of journalists, they really saw the value of Twitter.”
Hinsley tracked different hashtags on Twitter, too. From #MikeBrown to #MichaelBrown to #IfTheyGunnedMeDown to #Fergusonshooting to #Ferguson, she watched to see which would become the dominate hashtag of the story. Depending on which hashtag you followed, the tone and the narrative were different, she said.
Here’s a screenshot of tweets she found on August 9 with the #Ferguson hashtag:
Will journalists who started using Twitter to cover the story stay on Twitter? Hinsley thinks so. She studied people in New Orleans who started text messaging after Hurricane Katrina to see if they continued using it six months later. Largely, they did.
Hinsley plans to show her students how journalists used social media to reach out to people for information. And she’ll also talk about St. Louis Alderman Antonio French and his work on Twitter since the story began, as well as this BuzzFeed story by Michelle Broder Van Dyke about him. Here’s a screenshot Hinsley took of French’s tweets on August 9:
Hinsley, who covered the police beat as a reporter with the community sections of the Los Angeles Times in Glendale and Burbank, California, also has some ethical questions about coverage.
She saw many journalists tweeting directly from police scanners.
“After having sat with one of those on my desk for years,” she said, “they’re not reliable.”
Instead, she said, it’s a starting place, but the information has to be reported, not just repeated.
Both Hinsley and Kozlowski spoke about the role media played in covering the story and possibly prolonging it. Hinsley started seeing criticism of the media’s role in Ferguson by Thursday of last week on Twitter. Are people being exploited? Are they performing for cameras?
Those questions are all legitimate, Kozlowski said.
“At the same time, we gotta have journalists there covering it,” he said. “The story has to be told, it has to be shown and journalists have done a fine role in doing that.”
Perry, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Missouri, Columbia, plans to focus on the role of social media in his classes, too, but also on the context he felt was often lacking in coverage of Ferguson.
“Here we teach a cross-cultural journalism class, which is a required class,” he said. “We will be using that.”
Context was often missing in stories about Ferguson, St. Louis, the region and the tension there, he said.
“If you go and look at cities like St. Louis, Dallas, you have these small communities that are adjacent to a large metro area and the white flight over decades has left pockets of African American poverty connected to or adjacent to white communities,” Perry said. “A lot of the stories I saw never even touched on that.”
There’s also a socioeconomic perspective that Perry thinks journalists often don’t highlight.
“You can’t separate the two,” he said. “Since the founding of this country, through the Civil War, through reconciliation, through Jim Crow, up to now, class has always been a part of race.”
Classes started at both SLU and MU on Monday, but journalism classes certainly aren’t the only places where what happened in Ferguson will be studied and discussed. Last Thursday, St. Louis Public Radio’s Erica Smith wrote about Georgetown University history professor Marcia Chatelain, who created #FergusonSyllabus. From Smith’s story:
“I started #FergusonSyllabus as an opportunity to not only challenge educators to talk about Ferguson in meaningful ways, but to help people understand that regardless of the topic they teach, there’s a way to use this moment to teach our students something valuable.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Kozlowski’s position at St. Louis University. He is an associate professor.