HuffPost fellow learns lessons from Ferguson

November 18, 2014

Stewart.

Stewart.

When she began covering Ferguson, Mariah Stewart didn’t own a gas mask. She remembers looking with confusion at protesters who carried bandanas to ward off tear gas.

“I was like, ‘why are they doing that?’” Stewart said. “There’s already been a tear gas incident.”

A lot has happened since then.

After freelancing for Beacon Reader, Stewart was selected in August to be the Huffington Post’s first Ferguson fellow, working in tandem with reporter Ryan Reilly to report the ongoing story of what has happened since Michael Brown’s shooting.

Since she started for The Huffington Post, Stewart has had to learn a few things: she’s found new tools to do her job, gotten better at dealing with reader criticism and gained experience navigating the delicate relationship with her sources.

One recent lesson came after Stewart quoted a statement from St. Louis County Police saying that protesters “blocked the passage of an ambulance on an emergency run.” Readers responded with tweets showing video that contradicted the police report and asked her to change the story:

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Several of the people who tweeted at her about the error apologized to her in direct messages after she acknowledged the inaccuracy and fixed the story. Still, the sudden influx of critical tweets was scary.

“I quickly learned that not everyone’s going to love your work,” Stewart said.

One of Stewart’s biggest worries from the episode was that protesters in Ferguson would begin distrusting her. Stewart says she has watched protesters stop talking to journalists who report on the protests critically or inaccurately.

“All of the coverage you’ve done, all it takes is one sentence to rub them the wrong way and you will get shunned,” she said.

Stewart has picked up a couple of reporting tools since she began covering Ferguson in early August. She’s chagrined to admit she didn’t know about Google Alerts before she started, and she’s gotten very familiar with collaborative editing using Google Docs.

Stewart has also gotten more savvy about the day-to-day life of full-time journalism. Although she still feels like “I don’t have an off button,” she reminds herself to take a break every once in awhile. She has also gotten better at separating her own opinion from analysis and coverage while giving media interviews after some coaching from Reilly.

“I’ve learned how to take myself out of the interview and answer like I’m writing an article,” she said.

Looking forward, Stewart wants to become a better-sourced reporter by cultivating relationships with more St. Louis-area decision-makers. She acknowledges that she still has a long way to go.

“I’m learning every day,” she said.

And at least now she has a gas mask.