Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL133.PRB - Ferguson, Police and Reporters«MDNM»
Cops lobbing tear gas at reporters. Journalists handcuffed and arrested while trying to do their jobs. Reporters threatened while covering a story of international significance. A TV news crew having its camera shut down by police.
Those scenes from Ferguson portrayed an animosity to journalists by police that does not reflect my reporting experience in more than four decades working with law enforcement officials.
Just the opposite. Police continue to be my most helpful sources.
What has changed in the attitude of some police to my profession?
Even during the heat of the Vietnam War when protesters confronted police, cops went out of their way to assist my coverage.
The last time before Ferguson that a Missouri governor called out the National Guard for a protest, they allowed me to cross the barricades during a riot in Jefferson City.
A dear friend of mine who covered the Vietnam War for the AP described how the military facilitated his coverage. "They provided access we didn't have with helicopters and trucks," Bob Gassaway said.
Unlike Ferguson where protecting reporters was cited as a reason to restrict journalists, Bob and I remembered how the military understood the danger journalists accepted.
Bob experienced that cost first hand when he was wounded in Vietnam.
I gained a very slight sense of that risk when I had to plaster myself against the ground to avoid firearms fire I heard during that Jefferson City riot.
Critics might charge we old-time reporters got too close with military and police.
Another national reporter and I reminisced about the unrelated times we were approached by the FBI to be informants.
We both adamantly refused. But it does suggest a very different relationship between police and reporters than we saw in Ferguson.
So, what changed in Ferguson?
One factor, I think, is the simplicity of recording devices that has allowed almost anyone to walk into a scene and claim to be a reporter.
A colleague of mine who covered Ferguson identified the problem of a near army of outside reporters with no personal relationships with local police.
It made it more difficult for police to distinguish between what he termed "professional journalists" and "citizen journalists."
Unlike professional journalists with standards that preclude pursuing advocacy or stirring things up, citizen journalists sometimes are one-sided advocates who demand video access with their small hand-held cameras just like regular reporters.
In the heat of the moment, they are not easy to distinguish from professional journalists serving mass audiences.
Also, I suspect that the growing opinionated coverage from national cable TV "news" helped inflame police attitudes.
How can cops make a distinction between a neutral journalist and an advocate like MSNBC's Al Sharpton? Do editorialists, advocates, activists and journalists all enjoy the same rights of access to areas of conflict?
The reality of a tense and potentially violent situation precludes opening the gates to everyone. So, what should be the criteria for coverage access?
If access is going to be restricted, should there not be clear standards for law enforcement to define who gets in and who is blocked? Should there not be a standard that assures those serving the mass public have access?
Ferguson raises questions about the standards taught in Missouri's police training program about treatment of journalists in these kind of situations. Are police being taught the respect and need for the public to be informed in a democracy?
What are police taught when an officer sees a journalist being blocked from or arrested for covering a story -- as happened in Ferguson?
But there also are serious questions for journalists arising from Ferguson.
Throughout the country, in both Washington and statehouses, government reporters have adopted rules that try to identify ourselves.
I authored the standards for Missouri's statehouse press corps.
But in the aftermath of Ferguson, maybe both my profession and law enforcement need to reexamine our standards.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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