Ferguson, Missouri: Summary of Media Harassment and How Photojournalists are Being Attacked and Detained

By now, many of you have seen the news coverage surrounding the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting took place on August 9, 2014, with the demonstrations and looting beginning shortly thereafter. Unsurprisingly, nearly every major news outlet has a team in Ferguson to cover the events. I’m sure many of you know about the tear gas, rubber bullets, arrests, Molotov cocktails, military presence and pleas for peace in the streets. That said, you may have missed the coverage of incidents directly involving the media. Here’s a summary of some of the media-related incidents that have occurred in Ferguson.

For the readers outside of the St. Louis area, here’s some basic knowledge about the local print media outlets that have been covering the Michael Brown shooting. The daily newspaper in St. Louis is called the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Like every other newspaper in the country, the staffing numbers are down from years past, but the P-D has ten staff photojournalists, plus a director of multimedia and a director of photography.

Respectfully, if you are counting on the national news broadcasts to learn about Ferguson, you’d do much better just following the St. Louis outlets.

David Carson is a P-D staff photojournalists, and he was one of the first photographers on the scene following the shooting. Carson, who has war zone experience and was wearing full riot gear, was struck on the head while trying to get photos of the Quik Trip that had been set ablaze. Eventually police kicked him out of the QT. The Poynter Institute has an extended account of the events, written by Kristen Hare.

After you finish that article, please take the time to read this piece from Lindsay Toler of the Riverfront Times. The Riverfront Times is a local magazine that has been publishing good long-form coverage. Toler discusses the role media is playing in Ferguson, and why it is likely the arrests of journalists will continue.

On a national level, TIME has a lightbox that features the photos of many of the P-D photojournalists. In the accompanying interview, Carson discusses how his time in Iraq relates to covering Ferguson. Fellow P-D photographer J.B. Forbes relays a poignant and scary story about being threatened twice a candlelight vigil.

Robert Cohen, also on P-D staff, plainly states that the dust-ups between police and media could be attributed to the police’s inability to distinguish between protesters, looters and members of the media.

The New York Times LENS blog has a great piece about how photography is helping us understand the events, namely images made by young, amateur African-American photographers and videographers creating the images using cell phones or other ‘non-professional’ cameras.

The images alone paint a harrowing picture. The article provides great historical context. Don’t skip this one.

Back to the media harassment, though.

Scott Olson, a Getty Images staff photographer, was arrested and detained briefly. He was not charged. Getty swiftly condemned the actions.

CNN reported on Tuesday that a total of 11 journalists had been arrested, detained and released. That lists includes journalists from major news outlets like Financial Times, The Telegraph, The Washington Post and Sports Illustrated.

Here are links to Neil Munshi and Robert Klemko detailing their experience:

A Canadian news reporter was arrested Tuesday, apparently under the direct order of Capt. Ronald S. Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol. Johnson is in charge of the police response. The event was captured by a CTV cameraman. The reporter was detained overnight but released without charges.

The police aren’t the only ones harassing journalists in Ferguson. Politico discusses the backlash both local and national reporters have experienced via demonstrators.

Last but not least, PBS has a great compilation of Who’s Who if you want to follow many of the local photojournalists or reporters.

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16 Comments

Jennifer Kelley's picture

You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. This police department was arresting the media because "they couldn't tell who was press and who wasn't". During the Occupy protests they were still arresting and otherwise detaining photojournalists. This is just common practice it seems for law enforcement to keep their own poor actions from hitting the internet. I don't know if they honestly believe they can arrest media for taking photos (or anyone for that matter) or if it's intentional.

Anonymous's picture

Maybe they were using Canon Rebel

Kevin Sutton's picture

I live in the St.Louis area and quite frankly don't know how to word my feelings about St.Louis the place I have called home forever. To be honest I have watched national news, local news, local paper articles etc etc. Most have really thrown gas on this fire. I see both sides here. Journalists not pundits have a job to do and they need to document, but if your in the midst of chaos you may be mistaken as someone else. If you didn't think it would happen you underestimated the problem. Anyone and I mean anyone can get a camera or an iPhone and call themselves a journalist or photographer.

The police should not be leveling their weapons like they were either nor is there a reason to be physically assaulted like the Huff Post guy. The looping video above doesn't seem to demonstrate anything to me other then a loud bullhorn to tell the media to backup as to not interfere whatever was going on behind it.

Aaron Ottis's picture

Kevin, I totally understand what you mean about trying to comprehend and vocalize what is happening. I'm from the area as well, and I'm still not sure how to talk about certain aspects of what is happening in Ferguson.

Re: the looping video. My interpretation is that Munshi is trying to illustrate exactly what you are talking about with iPhone citizen-journalists and a vague or changing definition of journalism. I think he meant for the video to show that the cops have no idea how to differentiate between journalists with cameras and demonstrators with cameras. I believe, from reading his accounts, that demonstrators had begun to hide behind/within the media areas.

Ralph Berrett's picture

From Past experience I will say the Missouri, police are overwhelmed and did not have any real practical polices for dealing with the press and media. My personal guess is what polices they have are from the 60's. You are also seeing the side effects of less professional reporters and photojournalists. Police learn the faces and names of journalist, it means they are less likely to do a drastic stupid thing because they know the person and understand the fallout.

Another issue here is anyone with a camera and or blog is no identifying themselves as media. This means it is a lot harder to identify all the players.

The last issue the rules of the game has changed almost every person has a phone that can shoot pictures record video and send it online. The days of police working in anonymity is done it means it is easier to throw cases out sue departments and individual officers. Now a police action can be seen almost instantly, which again goes back to having policies.

You wold think after Rodney King LA Riots that happen in 1991 that nationally police departments would have created policies for these events, well apparently not.

Jennifer Kelley's picture

"Another issue here is anyone with a camera and or blog is no identifying themselves as media. This means it is a lot harder to identify all the players. "

I think you hit the nail on the head to one main reason journalists are having more difficulties. Some of these articles I've read have been about "citizen journalists". No, you're a person with an ipad that's going to submit your video or photos to a news outlet via their Facebook page. Unless someone is wearing their credentials, which I understand a lot of people have stopped doing, the police have no idea who you are or what you are doing.

Most police departments are not equipped to handle riots because they are so rare. The only one I remember in my lifetime (in the US) was the LA Riots. There are police officers who weren't even born then. With their budgets being slashed every November, I can see why they cut back on training for these situations.

Aaron Ottis's picture

Jennifer, those are great points. I'd add, too, that dealing with the press during a riot probably isn't emphasized during a training exercise. Certainly not an excuse, but I doubt many of these cops have any experience with that. Most departments have press reps, or figure that administration can run a press conference. But riots aren't press conferences, right? All of a sudden every officer is in direct contact with demonstrators and media at the same time.

Ralph Berrett's picture

I think a big part about a riot is most cities run on the belief it won't happen here, unless they are a city with recent experience. So they are not prepared.

Another issue is defining who is media? At the last chain of papers I worked for they had 8 publications in the San Joaquin Valley, They now have 3. Almost every paper chain has cut editorial staffs by half.

TV stations also lost personal. Most photojournalists working for a daily had at least 4 years of college and intern experience. Now with everyone having a blog and a camera it would be more difficult for the police. At the same time it does not help when the police call out on blow horns to stop filming then storm the rioters.

In manny ways we are seeing after effects the breakdown of community news and media.

Deleted Account's picture

I have been adamantly following the story in Ferguson since it broke. By that, I mean consuming just about everything I can. I keep #Ferguson up on Twitter and sync that with live video feeds, in addition to reading numerous news sources. Here's my take on the media situation:

I agree that the local guys are probably the best/most unbiased source of information. The national media (CNN, MSNBC, etc) are there mostly to sensationalize and frankly, are not credible sources of real journalism. All media is politically driven, but the national players are the worst. This entire mess has been so overblown, that when the truth finally does come out, no one is going to believe it anyway. The one exception has been that kid from Vice News. He's doing a helluva job.

I also agree that many in the press have been mistreated in Ferguson. The idea of a quarantined "media area" and "protest area" is like something out of a dystopian novel. That being said, considering how ridiculously unreliable the media has been in recent memory, I can't say that I blame the police for wanting them to keep their distance. I've been a member of the press, and having a press badge does not mean you are draped in the American flag, wearing the 1st Amendment as a crown. It does not grant you all-access or special privileges.

Oddly enough, it seems like the members of the press who I would expect to be problems are the ones who are having problems. Respectable members of the press have for the most part, been left alone.

Aaron Ottis's picture

Yes, the Vice stuff has been incredible.

Mr Blah's picture

You mean to tell us that the southern USA authorities STILL behaves like it's 1920?

SHOCKING.

More seriously, these actions are on par with how medias are treated in Ukraine right now...

Ridiculous...

Aaron Ottis's picture

Simon, I tend to think this has less to do with geography and more with the mindset and policies. But if you are implying that perhaps society hasn't progressed as much as we'd like to think, then I would agree with you.

Cinto Brewer's picture

I think most reporters are becoming paparazzi. They chase news like the paparazzi chase stars.
http://thevandykecollection.com/embarrassed-to-photograph-ferguson/ As far as I'm concerned they are half the problem. http://gawker.com/the-revolution-will-not-be-vice-1165948487
"some of those stories are little more than wide-eyed disaster tourism and painfully oblivious smirks at situations that deserve sobriety."
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/05/arts/television/vice-a-new-approach-to...
"The problem with “Vice” isn’t its insistent aggrandizement but its excessive softheadedness. It’s journalism at the intersection of shallow and gullible, where they meet, high-five and compare tattoos." Sums up what I think of Vice News.

I used to think the news was a place to find information, now it's just a place to find the reinforcement of what you already believe. News is about what side your on and what YOU want to hear, not about what you need to know.

Aaron Ottis's picture

I agree with you that these types of events should spark more and longer conversations about "news" coverage serving as an accelerant and agitator.

I have to disagree with the criticism of Vice in this instance, though. Maybe that NYT review is true for some of their other work, but I think referring to their Ferguson video dispatches as softheaded, shallow or gullible is just foolish.

Alex None's picture

Sure, minorities are being executed in the streets after living under decades of police oppression... but let's spare a thought for the *real* victims here, the photographers.

lol.

Aaron Ottis's picture

Perhaps you missed the part about this being a photography website.