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Citizen journalists, social media made Ferguson ‘America’s Arab Spring’

State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, points to a sign last August in Ferguson. Chappelle-Nadal was one of the many political figures who felt transformed by Michael Brown's death.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

William Freivogel, professor of public policy at SIU-Carbondale, recently labeled the widespread use of social media following the death of Michael Brown as “America’s Arab Spring.”

The international parallels are clear: a swell of ‘citizen journalists’ live-tweeting, streaming, and blogging protests and confrontations; Internet-based organization and galvanization of grassroots movements; and the use of social media as an alternative source of news.

But how did grassroots coverage of Ferguson compare to traditional media coverage from local, regional, and national outlets? What did the news and social media get wrong? And why does it matter?

Overall, Freivogel said, all types of media—local news, national news, social media—did some things very well and some things poorly.

The sheer volume of coverage drew attention to a serious and longstanding problem in St. Louis and beyond, Freivogel noted. That attention in some cases prompted action, such as the establishment of the Ferguson Commission, some municipal court reform, and on a national scale, the much-touted President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

The Department of Justice’s report on the Ferguson police department and court system, Freivogel said, was an especially critical consequence of the national attention paid to the St. Louis region. “I read the whole report as I reported on it for St. Louis Public Radio and it almost turned my stomach. I felt sick at the end of the day, reading about all the examples of racist and unconstitutional police practices that were occurring in Ferguson and, I think, are probably occurring in thousands of police departments around the country that just have not been under the same kind of microscope as Ferguson was.”

Massive coverage, however, came with its own problems, and one of the most unfortunate consequences was the rapid spread and perpetuation of false reports. The words that became a movement—Michael Brown’s alleged cry that his hands were up and “don’t shoot”—is a myth, Freivogel said. “That was pretty much demolished by the testimony before the grand jury and by the justice department report last March.”

Similarly false, he said, were quick-catching reports that Brown’s death had been caused by a different police officer from a different department, or that former Officer Darren Wilson’s eye socket had been broken by Brown, which also went against physical and forensic evidence.

Many of these rumors began, and were spread, on Twitter; and the almost constant influx of material had news organizations scrambling to separate fact from fiction.

“There are many ways for falsehoods to be spread very quickly, and I’ve maintained that it’s not only the duty of the modern journalist to put out truth, as best as they know it, but…also to try to correct falsehood when they see it,” said Kelsey Proud, St. Louis Public Radio’s digital innovation editor. “And I think in the past year, perhaps there wasn’t enough of correcting the falsehoods; and as always, there was a lot of pressure to be first, rather than right.”

Proud admitted that it was a tough balance to strike. “The onus was on us to determine which sources we could trust in whole, and then to pass along that information to the best of our ability. It’s dicey. We knew that.”

Especially because another problem presented by such extensive coverage was misrepresentation of Ferguson—and St. Louis—itself.

“It was very frustrating for us to see journalists sort of come in with almost no research, and had done very little homework on the region, confusing things as basic as the fact that there’s a St. Louis City and a St. Louis County,” Proud said.

That kind of carelessness was something local journalists could not have gotten away with. “We know that we have to stay here and we will be held accountable by members of the community, because we’re part of the community.”

All told, however, Ferguson’s real impact was to cement social media as a vital tool for American journalism and social movements alike.

In the height of the protest movements last fall, Proud said, “We tried to be very clear that we were hearing what they said. We tried to be blatant in thanking them for their trust, and we promised them that we would share what we knew, when we knew it, and we would share how we knew it.”

“It was difficult to separate the wheat and the chaff,” she continued, “but it was important to me, and it still remains important to me, to make sure that we’re representing a variety of perspectives in the community, not just those of people in traditional power structures.”

That emphasis on representation may be one of the most beneficial aspects of citizen journalism. While social media made fact-checking and discernment more difficult, it also forced news organizations into transparency, and to accepting community feedback and participation.

“The one good thing about social media is that it’s an incredible democratizing force on media,” Freivogel said. “Yes, it’s unedited, and yes, it’s full of false statements, conspiracy theories, and rumors. It’s also full of new information and different perspectives that maybe no journalist was coming up with.”

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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