Takeaways from the streets of Ferguson

By Joey Starling
Stanford University

An unarmed black teen Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014 during an altercation with white police officer Darren Wilson. Opinions about Ferguson are wide-ranging, but the attention placed on the small town of Ferguson is undeniable.  

Ferguson was known for its weekly farmers market and annual Hispanic festival. The quaint community has commonly been a place for photo features, serving as a glimpse into everyday life. Now, Ferguson produces images of riots and civil unrest. The people in charge of reporting events had to learn the best techniques on the fly.

Lynden Steele, assistant managing editor for photography at The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is still learning these lessons. Steele believes the events in Ferguson “permanently changed our community, and permanently changed our newsroom.” Steele highlighted the significant takeaways from the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death at the 2015 ASNE-APME Conference at Stanford University on Saturday.

Steele stressed the importance of constant and quick news coverage. Emphasis needs to be placed on frequent short updates, rather than dedicating time towards editing an article or photo, he said.  

“Be mobile, be fast, and get things out there,” he said.  

Twitter was the best tool in providing coverage, Steele said. The social media site quenched the public’s “immense breaking news appetite” better than any edited material, he said. However, Steele also felt a “role and responsibility to not just repeat—and fill an authority role.” Steele said he also factchecked before pressing retweet and spreading information to a larger audience.

Steele’s strategy proved to be successful when he tweeted a photo he had received minutes earlier from one of his photographers. The photo of a protester in an American flag shirt throwing a tear gas grenade away from a crowd went viral instantly. Protesters wore shirts with the image the next day. Steele believes the same emotional effect would not have been achieved if the photo had been released the following day when protests were not taking place.

Photographers also benefited from forming relationships with people they were covering. The volatile situation created dangerous situations for photographers and reporters. Having relationships with people on the ground gave Steele’s crew a sense of protection, he said. Also, Steele’s crew rarely had issues forming connections because both protesters and police wanted to give them access in order to gain more control over the narrative, he said.

While Steele shared his insights on what he believed worked in Ferguson, he added: “There is no road map, there is no best practice, there is no guide.”  

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