Updated: May 24, 2015
What happened in Ferguson is not something that is normally seen on American soil: militarized police forces directly attacking journalists. The context for what happened on August 13th in Ferguson, Missouri does not justify police behavior, and in fact only casts a darker shadow over their shooting of unarmed African-American teenager, Michael Brown.
Those reporters were simply trying to cover the protests and riots across Ferguson, but instead of cooperation from police, they were met with tear gas, rubber bullets, TAZERs and other forms of non-lethal force. This egregious example of unprovoked police brutality not only damages law enforcement’s justifications for shooting Brown, but also shows them to be guilty of violating the First Amendment in a very disturbing way. The Huffington post has a great article regarding journalist/police relations that I’ve linked below:
These attacks against members of the Fourth Estate only raise further questions about police ethics, conduct, and whether or not police departments across the country are becoming over-militarized. Tensions over the shooting of Brown have been riding high in Ferguson for the past two weeks, and the aggravated assault of journalists is only pouring salt into the wounds. The police in Ferguson can wave goodbye to any form of sympathy from the press or the public, and if they still hope to gain some empathy, they had better start realizing who their friends are in the field: reporters.
Reporters mold public opinion more-so than any other professional group, and in a town where the majority of citizens are black and most of the police force is white, getting good PR would be an invaluable asset for the cops to have.
Instead of being afraid of the press, police in Ferguson should start using them to their advantage. However, if policemen and women conduct themselves in a way that undermines the legitimacy of their agency, journalists are going to find out and report it. A problem becomes 1000 times worse when people attempt to cover up their wrongdoings, instead of being straightforward with those asking questions. If more police practiced the latter, it would earn them major bonus points with the people writing articles and reports about their behavior.
In today’s world of fast internet and smartphones, it is especially dangerous for agencies with high public visibility like the police to be found using excessive force, even when it is justified. The reason for this is viewers are not going to understand the context in which the aggression is taking place, therefore they are likely to side with the more vulnerable party. This may not be a problem if the footage finds its way to a news station where journalists can disseminate and vet the information, but if the video lands on YouTube the content can be framed however the uploader wishes it to be.
The Ferguson PD and all other law enforcement agencies involved in the attacks on journalists over the past week deserve every ounce of bad press that they are receiving. And until they can learn to use journalism as a tool to better their image, instead of seeing it as a threat, police will continue to circle the drain of public opinion.
(photo credit to USAToday.com)