Freelance writer Sarah Kendzior: ‘Geography is essential to understanding Ferguson’

August 12, 2015
Category: Uncategorized
Sarah Kendzior, submitted photo

Sarah Kendzior, submitted photo

For journalists in St. Louis and some of us who’ve been watching from a distance, the last few days have felt pretty familiar. Once again, we’re seeing news about Ferguson, news about journalists injured while covering Ferguson and news of journalists facing issues with police there. Writer Sarah Kendzior has had some deja vu as well. On Tuesday morning, she tweeted “Getting daughter ready for first day of school. Like last year spent night wondering if canceled because of Ferguson again.”

“We are living August 2014 again,” Kendzior wrote in a piece Tuesday for Politico. “We are living November 2014 again. We are living in a place where the only lesson learned seems to be how much people can get away with.”

Via email, I spoke with Kendzior about her work, what’s changed in Ferguson in the last year and what hasn’t. You’ll also find headlines with links from some of Kendzior’s stories.

This is part three in a week-long series checking back in with St. Louis-based journalists.

What has changed (in your work life, in St. Louis, in the country) in the last year?

In journalism, a lot has changed. In March 2014, I wrote a story about fast food workers in St. Louis’s North County, with the majority of interviews with black workers who lived in Ferguson. But the editor who assigned me the piece wanted direct quotes from black workers taken out; wanted me to insert myself, as a white woman, into the story so the reader would have “someone to relate to”; wanted it to be less St. Louis and more national, etc. She thought their story was irrelevant to the public interest. I could not do this in good conscience, so eventually we realized we could not work together – for the record, this is the only time in my career that this kind of disagreement has happened. I took a drastic pay cut and published the article, “The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back”, on my own. It was very important to me that the story of low-income black workers in St. Louis be told.

After August 2014, no one doubted that issues of race, poverty and political repression in St. Louis are important. I no longer needed to convince editors that these issues were worth covering. Unfortunately, interest is not consistent – Ferguson tends to be covered in waves, with the initial August violence, the November grand jury verdict, the March DOJ report, and now the anniversary attracting public attention. I think it’s better if issues of racism, police brutality and poverty are covered consistently – as issues that merit coverage in their own right, not because of a dramatic event. But I think Ferguson activists and national activists in the Black Lives Matter movement have done a tremendous job in bringing these issues to the forefront and forcing the mainstream media to cover them with increased regularity.

Screen shot, Medium

Screen shot, Medium

What hasn’t changed?

Policy hasn’t changed enough, and personnel hasn’t changed in a meaningful way. I interviewed a Ferguson resident recently who told me he felt like chairs were shuffled on the Titanic. There have been a lot of meetings, a lot of political interests at play, and some resignations and shifting of leadership. But the overall issues of racism, brutality, and poverty remain insufficiently addressed. Emotionally, people are exhausted. I don’t think the public understands the toll this year has taken on the people of the St. Louis, by which I mean the greater metro area, and especially on the people of Ferguson. People are still fighting for change, but after a year of fighting, they are worn out.

Screen shot, Politico

Screen shot, Politico

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?

It is mixed. I think some local journalists have done a tremendous job. St. Louis Public Radio and the St. Louis American in particular have done very thorough, consistent coverage. Many reporters and columnists from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have also done a very good job, although I take issue with the way the paper sometimes covers topics like police brutality and protest. You may recall their first article on Ferguson referred to a group of mourners as a “mob”. But I am loyal to other St. Louis journalists because at least they understand the basic dynamics of the region, which the national media often doesn’t. The national media made many mistakes, ranging from announcing false bomb threats to claiming they were reporting from downtown St. Louis when they were really in a suburb. You had national reporters who literally didn’t know from where they were reporting – it was amazing to see. Geography is essential to understanding Ferguson, particularly the racial politics of geography, so I trust St. Louis reporters more.

Screen shot, Quartz

Screen shot, Quartz

Social justice and the relationship between the black community and police has been in the news regularly since Ferguson. Have you reached out to journalists in other communities covering similar stories? Have they reached out to you?

We all talk with each other on Twitter. Some of the national reporters who cover police brutality on a regular basis covered Ferguson, and many of them did an excellent job. When I see a well-reported piece by a writer in another city I try to circulate it. I also try to amplify the local voices coming out of other cities who are not traditional media but citizen reporters, often more passionate and clued in than their mainstream counterparts.

Screen shot, Politico

Screen shot, Politico

Most of the people I’ve interviewed for this feature are writing for St. Louis audiences. You often write for more national audiences. Because of that, has writing about Ferguson been different for you than your St. Louis peers? How?

I am in a strange position because I’m a St. Louis writer who writes for national audiences, and I don’t think there is another journalist in that position. On an emotional level, I think I’ve had a similar experience to other St. Louis journalists. This is not just a story for us, this is our home, and particularly in the months between August and November it was a very tense time, when we all felt afraid for and protective of and disgusted with St. Louis – a million emotions at once. I don’t think the parachute reporters had this emotional experience. As for the reporting itself, I’m writing for an audience who I assume knows little about St. Louis, so I try to make my stories accessible by providing a lot of history and context, particularly on the geography and social dynamics of the region.

Screen shot, The Guardian

Screen shot, The Guardian

Finally, what advice do you have for other journalists who could find themselves reporting huge stories like Ferguson?

Read history. It would have improved reporting so much if journalists had consulted a book like Colin Gordon’s “Mapping Decline”, or even the Wikipedia pages for Ferguson, North County, and the St. Louis metro region. The early reporting was pretty terrible, I was constantly seeing factual errors and broad sensationalism. If you know nothing about a region, realize that, and learn. There’s no shame in not knowing something, but there is in refusing to learn it. Read books and talk to local people with an open mind. Don’t just interview the same people over and over again – expand your network, venture into different areas, spend time away from other journalists and with the people. On big stories, journalists sometimes travel in packs, which can limit one’s perspective. Before I was a journalist, I was an anthropologist, and I think a lot of the skills anthropologists have are useful for covering stories like this – namely, dropping back a little, not rushing to judgement, being incredibly thorough in your background research, letting people speak for themselves.

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