Ferguson and Press Freedom
After the August 9 killing by police of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, many of the area’s residents took to the streets in protest. As the protests stretched into days, then weeks, the town became a focal point for media from across the United States. Journalists and photographers reported on the ongoing protests, the circumstances surrounding Michael Brown’s death, and numerous violations of First Amendment rights, including the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of the press.
Press freedom, a fundamental right enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, includes the right of journalists to do their jobs without intentional interference by the police. That right was clearly under threat in Ferguson, as journalists encountered obstruction, tear gas, rubber bullets, and in at least seventeen cases, arrest by police.
Ensuring that reporters can do their jobs in places like Ferguson is essential on multiple levels. Media coverage of policing tactics like the extensive use of tear gas, riot gear, and police dogs against protesters can be used as evidence in efforts to hold the police accountable for the excessive use of force, as well as in reviews of law enforcement policies on protest policing strategies. Reports on the military-style equipment being used by police in Ferguson, including armored vehicles and rifles, has sparked a national debate over the militarization of local police forces, and a Senate hearing on the issue. Finally, this front-page picture from the August 19 St. Louis Post-Dispatch really was worth a thousand words in contributing to the debate.
Journalists also do the legwork that helps expose the underlying forces contributing to the formation of a protest. In the case of Ferguson, interviews with those participating in the protests quickly made clear that protesters were concerned not only with the killing of Michael Brown, but also with years of tense relations with law enforcement, underrepresentation of minorities in local government and on police forces, the aggressive and arbitrary enforcement of traffic laws and fines, and economic crisis. Stories like these are a central part of the democratic process, providing voters with the information they need to hold their representatives accountable and the motivation to demand change. This role of the media in maintaining a healthy democracy makes reports of violations of freedom of the press in Ferguson ever more alarming.
READ MORE: Despite the difficulties many journalists faced in reporting from Ferguson, they have produced a tremendous amount of thought-provoking coverage, both of the protests and of the deeper issues facing Ferguson and many towns like it in the U.S. Below, we’ve collected just a few of these:
Jeb Lund, Rolling Stone: “Insecurity State: The Politics Behind the Drama in Ferguson“
Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker: “Between the World and Ferguson“
Wesley Lowery, Washington Post: “How Many Police Shootings a Year? No One Knows“
Robert Klemko, Sports Illustrated: “Football in Ferguson“
Yamiche Alcindor, USA Today: “Go Behind Police Lines in Ferguson“
Ryan Devereaux, The Intercept: “America Without the Makeup: Artez Hurston’s Ferguson“