Stephen Smoot

Riots bring out the best and the worst in media. Some risk their safety to get the powerful images and stories that define an event. Responsible professionals take great care to make sure that the story gets told properly and fairly. Some reporters and, more often, pundits, unfortunately use images without providing context and gravitate immediately to easy hot button topics. They push to inflame, rather than inform.

Journalists, against their wishes, have also formed part of the story. Police actions against both citizen reporters and mainstream media reporters have made Ferguson a symbol of what many on the right and left have concluded is wrong with law enforcement.

Residents are frustrated with the overall coverage. St. Louis resident Kelly Morrison used social media to accuse the media of sensationalizing the riot, explaining that “they are making it seem like the police are policing a situation - when in reality they are saying that we can't congregate and protest after dark..... we can't videotape/report on their actions” She also said that “97 percent” of the protesters are peacefully at the police station or the crime scene.

Coverage naturally includes pictures of explosions, tear gas illuminated by light at night, and other dramatic imagery. But not every journalist ensures, as the Daily Caller’s Rachel Stoltzfoos did, that even a photo essay explains a story fairly. Stoltzfoos fairly balanced photos of clashes with those of peaceful marchers. One video shows police firing rubber bullets into peaceful protesters, another image seems to show police following proper procedure.

Police crackdowns on reporting have taken center stage in coverage in the past two days. St. Louis alderman Antonio French donned the cap of citizen journalist, driving into Ferguson to videotape and report what he saw. Police later arrested French while videotaping from inside his own car.

French told KMOV, “I asked why I was being arrested and he said it was because ‘I didn’t listen.’”

Some in Congress, notably Senator Diane Feinstein, in recent years have looked to give special protection to “paid” journalists. Such legislation would leave spontaneous reporters like Alderman French vulnerable to prosecution because he “didn’t listen.”

Stephen Smoot

Dr. Stephen A. Smoot is a columnist, historian, political adviser, and media expert. He lives with his family in West Virginia.