View of #Ferguson Thrust Michael Brown Shooting to National Attention
The New York Times
By David Carr
August 17, 2014
Ferguson, Missouri, was just a place — a working-class suburb of St. Louis — before an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by the police, before protests and looting erupted, before local force responded with armored vehicles, tear gas and rubber bullets, and Ferguson became #Ferguson.
Last Wednesday night, my Twitter feed began to explode with videos, photographs and messages, all depicting the kind of mayhem we’re accustomed to seeing in war-torn corners of the globe, except that this was happening smack dab in the middle of America.
The story had already received its share of attention, but now it was breaking in a new and scary way, with reporters arrested, protesters gassed, stun grenades exploding and a line of police in riot gear confronting a group of protesters who were milling about.
The chaos was evident by about 8 p.m. Eastern time. I immediately turned on CNN and found a tribute to Lauren Bacall mixed with wall-to-wall coverage of the rescue effort in northern Iraq.
But the web crackled with one story and one story only. It wasn’t long before cable news made adjustments and a huge story — a militarized response to a mostly nonviolent exercise of free speech — took center stage. For that you can thank Twitter, which is often derided as a platform for banalities but has become much more than that in the age of always-on information.
For people in the news business, Twitter was initially viewed as one more way to promote and distribute content. But as the world has become an ever more complicated place — a collision of Ebola, war in Iraq, crisis in Ukraine and more — Twitter has become an early warning service for news organizations, a way to see into stories even when they don’t have significant reporting assets on the ground. And in a situation hostile to traditional reporting, the crowdsourced, phone-enabled network of information that Twitter provides has proved invaluable.
Police officials in Ferguson made it clear that they had no interest in accommodating news coverage. Officers in riot gear tear-gassed a crew from Al Jazeera working on a stand-up far from the action, then walked over and laid their equipment on the ground after they fled. Two reporters, Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of The Huffington Post, were arrested at a McDonald’s, perhaps for the crime of lurking with intent to order a cheeseburger. Antonio French, a Democratic alderman from St. Louis who had been documenting the protests and the security response nonstop on Twitter, was arrested as well.
(In one bit of irony in the aftermath of the events on Wednesday, President Obama said, “Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their job and report to the American people what they see on the ground.” This from an administration that has aggressively sought to block reporting and in some instances criminalize it.)
News organizations learned about the arrest and harassment of their reporters on Twitter and were able to take steps to get them out of jail. In the meantime, important information continues to flow out of Ferguson. As much as any traditional wire service, Twitter spread the remarkable work of David Carson, a photographer at The St. Louis Post-Dispatch who managed to take pictures despite being pushed around by both the police and the protesters.
There is a visceral quality to Twitter that can bring stories to a boiling point. Ron Mott, an NBC correspondent and a social media skeptic, watched Twitter turn up the heat on Wednesday and tweeted, “As powerful as our press have been through years of our democracy, social media raises temp on public officials like never before.”
In and of itself, Twitter is not sufficient to see clearly into a big story; it’s a series of straws that offer narrow views of a much bigger picture. But as a kind of constantly changing kaleidoscope, it provides enough visibility to show that something significant is underway. And news organizations are beginning to look at how to use Twitter in continuing ways: The Wall Street Journal’s parent company acquired Storyful, which creates narratives from the Twitter stream. CNN has been using Dataminr to help map coverage while NBC News owns @BreakingNews, which has nearly seven million followers.
It was, as so many observed, a surreal moment on Wednesday, in which scenes from Gaza, Iraq and Ferguson merged in the fog of war. In June, Matt Apuzzo of The New York Times wrote about how equipment from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was now finding its way to local police departments in the United States. All of which helps explain the sudden hostilities at home and the response of local law enforcement, which seemed over-equipped and underprepared, with everything in its tool belt save common sense.
Over at MSNBC, Chris Hayes and the producers there got a sense that a dangerous situation was developing. They began stitching together interviews with local television stations, as well as phone interviews with the two reporters who had been arrested. By 10 p.m., CNN had caught up with the story and mixed in live reports with continued coverage of the death of Ms. Bacall and the suicide of Robin Williams, along with field reports from the rescue mission of Yazidi refugees in Iraq. Mr. Hayes said that as early as the previous Saturday, right after Mr. Brown died, his Twitter feed was alive with news and speculation about the shooting, which only grew from there.
“This story was put on the map, driven and followed on social media more so than any story I can remember since the Arab Spring,” he said in a phone interview on Saturday. “On Wednesday night, when things went down, we were putting together live feeds and Twitter reports. Good luck running around there with a camera man and a news crew. You saw what happened to Al Jazeera’s crew.”
On Thursday, Mr. Hayes traveled to Ferguson for his show because it was clear this story was not going away, on Twitter or elsewhere. Twitter still carries a great deal of unverified and sometimes erroneous information, but for all its limitations, it has some very real strengths in today’s media climate. It is a heat map and a window, a place where sometimes the things that are “trending” offer very real insight into the current informational needs of a huge swath of news consumers, some of whom traditional outlets often miss.
While much of mainstream media leaves communities of color unmoved — these are audiences that are underrepresented in terms of broadband access as well — Twitter is a place many black users rely on for information.
Julie Bosman has been on the ground for The Times and posting to Twitter as often as time permits.
On Wednesday night in the thick of things, she was approached by a young black man in the neighborhood. “New York Times?” he asked. “Yes,” she said, introducing herself. “I follow you on Twitter,” he said.
On Thursday, after the chaos, there was a huge in-migration of news media. Perhaps even absent the conflagration on Twitter, journalists would have shown up. Perhaps cable news would have turned hard toward the story, and the kind of coverage that eventually drew the attention of the president and the governor of Missouri would have taken place. Perhaps all the things that led to the security situation in Ferguson being handed over to cooler heads would have ensued. But nothing much good was happening in Ferguson until it became a hashtag.
Reproduced with permission from Pars International Corp. Copyright © 2016 by The New York Times.