By Al Sunshine, RTDNA Contributor
Remember the old “What is an elephant?" story?
Three blind men go to a zoo to try and experience first hand the uniqueness of the creatures there. One feels an elephant's trunk and says it’s like a big hose. Another feels the legs and says they are like a tree. The third feels the tail and says it's like a snake.
Covering events like what's happening in Baltimore, Ferguson or other cities where issues boil over into civil unrest may offer the same kind of challenge. If you send your crews out into the streets the middle of the riot, they'll report about the fires, the angry words and the violence. But if you can take a step back, you may get a much different picture, including what’s being done to restore order, solve problems and bring about peaceful solutions. The trunk, legs and tail are all involved, but there's a lot more to it.
The recent civil unrest in Baltimore got me to thinking about the many issues journalists face while trying to cover fast-breaking events in an intense atmosphere. 35 years ago, I was caught up covering the first of the modern-era riots sweeping inner-city Miami.
When I look at Baltimore and Ferguson, I'm struck by the similarities: In each case, protests led to standoffs between police and minority residents. In each case, there was a perception in the affected communities that “the system” had let them down and police violence against them was being systematically encouraged. In each case, there were underlying neighborhood issues with stalled economic development, public housing, school problems and concerns inner-city neighborhood crime was not being fought with the same focus as more affluent parts of the city. There were also community concerns police training was not adequate to sensitize law enforcement to the needs of the area and that police leadership failed to reflect the ethnic make-up of the community they served.
35 years ago.
Miami, Oakland, Anaheim, Brooklyn, Ferguson, New York City. Is history repeating itself?
Covering the 1980 Liberty City riots in Miami taught us many lessons in South Florida that could help journalists and newsrooms do a better job than just dispatching live trucks and helicopters to get the latest pictures of burning cars and street stand-offs between police and protesters.
Sure, there will be debates in newsrooms about what to cover. Should you go live from behind police lines to show officers staging their riot gear and preparing to move into a crowd? If you shoot video, tweet or live stream from behind the scenes, will you give away police strategy not intended for public disclosure? How about reporting on allegations of the actions of police or protestors without verification? Was either side aggressive? Was either side provoked? Should you go live with protestors making demands or threats, such as more street violence to respond to alleged violence against them?
Is is safe to set up live gear in neighborhoods on the edge of civil disobedience, and how close should you get to the action before heeding police warnings to get out of an area? And if you get that kind of warning, do you stay or leave? If you don't leave, will you see what we saw in Miami and is happening in Baltimore right now: Police arguing that media coverage is encouraging protests?
And today there's the added factor of tweets and video being distributed by the protesters themselves. Know your source. Was the video simply documenting what happened, or did the person submitting it have other motivation?
The technology continues to change, but the underlying issues don't seem all that different than 35 years ago.
It is vital that an independent press continues its work as a public Watchdog, to see for themselves how police are handling crowds and trying to maintain order without violating the public's right to free speech and free assembly. But it's also a good time back at the city's history and have your investigative/special projects units crank up in-depth reporting to take a critical look at what led up to the community outrage and, importantly, what's being done to ramp down emotions and urge more meaningful discussions between the community, elected officials and police.
As much as burning cars, police in riot gear and chanting crowds are the foundation of this kind of coverage, it can't overwhelm the deeper obligation we have:
- Better serving the public by straight reporting what's going on and what led to it
- Working harder to get get all sides of the story
- Avoiding over-dependence on official news releases and report what your street reporters are seeing and hearing themselves
- Finding responsible community leaders who can more fully explain events and concerns in their neighborhoods
- Giving air time to the peacemakers on both sides, to show what's being done to de-escalate confrontations
- Keeping it all in perspective as part of the bigger picture
There are often community relations teams on the local, state and federal levels specializing in observing, documenting and mediating these kinds of mass civil protests. Reach out to them and make time to get them on the air to discuss what's being done to stop the violence. Your station's public affairs shows should offer expanded coverage too, detailing efforts to bring both sides together to expose not only problems but also solutions.
And covering civil disobedience should not be the time to think about ratings or promos of the best mobs and flames in the market. When your community appears to be coming apart at the seams, put your energy in to serving the needs of your viewers. All of them: Residents, authorities and elected officials. If you want to win, win by providing context, building trust and increasing understanding. That will pay off in the long run.
If your city experiences the kind of violence we're seeing in Baltimore, remember the story of the elephant. As journalists, it's our job to help our audience see the whole beast: Trunk, legs, tail, ears, eyes, thick skin, tusks, warts and all. Then you'll be producing coverage they'll never forget.
Al Sunshine is a 40-year veteran journalist who recently retired as an investigative reporter at WFOR-TV in Miami, FL.