I have a lot of complex feelings about what is going on a few miles to the north of me in Ferguson, Mo. I have been to this leafy and hilly suburb (an image that you probably wouldn’t get from all the news reports this week) a few times, including last weekend when my wife and I went with a few friends for breakfast to help support a local diner.
I am not really qualified to talk about the social tragedy, much as I would like to weigh in. Instead, let me share some observations about the way the media has covered events of the past week, tempered by the fact that I live in the metro area and have some local knowledge. Here are some key takeaways for tech folks:
The major television networks can’t get close enough to the action to be effective reporters any longer. Citizen journalists have played a big part in getting the word out as to what is actually happening on the street. One example is Mustafa Hussein who reports for a local Internet radio station. He quickly pressed into service a video camera which made him fleet of foot and being able to maneuver around the demonstrators much more nimbly than network cameramen and satellite trucks. The camera was damaged in his coverage, BTW.
A corollary to the above is that the networks either over or under-cover fast breaking events, and especially ones where they can’t move their resources fast enough to do a decent job. Even our local St. Louis stations have taken several days to figure out where to position themselves during the day and night, whom to interview, and so forth. If you are still trying to track things, a better place is to start with this great Twitter list of people to follow on Ferguson happenings.
Vine combined with Twitter has become an effective distribution mechanism that can rival the AP newswire in terms of timeliness and compelling content. The work of our city councilman (we call them alderman here) Antonio French is particularly exemplary with his frequent posts. He was a popular social media figure before the riots, but he has more than quadrupled his followers from 25 thousand to more than 110,000 followers in the past week. Of course, vetting the accuracy of these posts can still be vexing. But the immediacy of a six-second video clip is hard to dispute. I must admit that I had ignored Vine until now. My bad.
Reporters are no longer a protected class of observers. The downside of having more citizen journalists are that they are just as much at risk of being attacked by the demonstrators, gassed by the cops, or even arrested (as French and Hussein both were this week). The reporters that were arrested were released without being charged, but still cops need to have more training about how to distinguish and recognize them. (I will resist saying anything more about out the extreme irony of our President chiding the police for arresting reporters.)
Still, a place isn’t just a Twitter hashtag. Even the normally clear-thinking David Carr for the New York Times mistakenly says in an otherwise excellent article, “nothing much good was happening in Ferguson until it became a hashtag.” Au contraire. With all the posts containing #Ferguson, there are still far too few stories about how many of the local businessfolk are trying mightily to survive in the 95% of the rest of the town that looks like any other American suburb.