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Sunday, Sep 21, 2014
Commentary

Ferguson and threats to a free press


Published:

Freedom of speech. It’s a deceptively simple phrase. And although governments and local authorities have sought to curb this freedom long before it was enshrined in our Constitution, the complexities of exercising this right are now center stage.

The absurd trial of Al-Jazeera journalists in Egypt and the gruesome beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley by the Islamic State are perhaps the most obvious attempts to intimidate and silence those who are working to get vital news out to the rest of the world.

But we don’t need to go as far as the Middle East — or restrictive countries like Russia or China — to find instances of the powerful trying to control the voices of the disenfranchised. In a town that could be “Anywhere, USA,” Ferguson, Missouri, is serving as a microcosm in the conflict between a government’s need to maintain order and the public’s right to know.

Two reporters were arrested for not leaving a McDonald’s restaurant as quickly as police demanded. A TV crew was hit with tear gas, and after it fled, authorities tampered with its equipment. Journalists have been ordered to stop filming police, in clear violation of the First Amendment. In all, about a dozen and a half journalists have been arrested or detained in Ferguson for no other reason than gathering information in a place that law enforcement didn’t want them to be.

As the situation in Ferguson illustrates, the need for informed and sensitive coverage is increasingly important, and it is impossible to meet that need when journalists trying to report the story are harassed and arrested.

But this isn’t just about Ferguson or Michael Brown, the African-American teen whose shooting death sparked riots there. It’s not just a racial issue that can be reduced to a storyline about black victims and white cops. Nor is it limited to the First Amendment rights of journalists whose job it is to give voice to those who have none.

When it comes to diversity issues, there are tinder boxes everywhere, because such situations tap into some of the most difficult issues of race, immigration and ethnicity. The better job we as news professionals do in raising awareness about and through our coverage, the better informed people will be.

The journalists covering the Ferguson story come from newsrooms that are far more diverse than 50 years ago, when the Civil Rights Act was enacted. That diversity, combined with the watchful eye of people on social media, can be credited with improving coverage. These diverse perspectives give the public a fuller picture of the details and context of who, what, where, when, how and why events like the Ferguson protests are important.

Here’s to hoping that the diverse corps of journalists covering Ferguson and beyond can tell the story with impunity and without restrictions.

David A. Steinberg of Oakland, California, is president of UNITY: Journalists for Diversity, a coalition of the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and the Native American Journalists Association.

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