Akilah Johnson – Featured Blog for October 20, 2014

Freedom of the Press – Why, not What

Published October 20, 2014

by Akilah Johnson

This post is part of a series. View Akilah’s previous post here.

It wasn’t about the journalists dispatched to this midwestern city from around the globe. It wasn’t about us getting tear gassed, handcuffed, or threatened. And yes, all of those things did happen.

And yes, there were times when reporters knew firsthand the fears and emotions felt by some protesters because we were experiencing them too – except we weren’t. Our fears and the threats we faced, no matter how real, existed only within a finite amount of time. When our editors called us home, we left.

So why did the stories about the infringement of press freedoms get nearly as much attention as those of a teenage boy shot dead in the street?

Journalists shine light into dark places. We expose truth. We comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Jailing journalists, choking them with tear gas, interrupting interviews, dims that light and conceals those truths.

That is why it matters that the freedom of the press was restricted as reporters tried to tell the story of what was happening in Ferguson and not because people — in some cases personalities — were inconvenienced.

But the “why” seemed to have gotten lost in the “what.” What happened took precedent over why it mattered.

Field reporting is a series of negotiations for access. Reporters make judgment calls about when to push the limits for access and when to back off until you hit the sweet spot, that glimpse into the scene from the point-of-view of the subject, be it in a living room or in a police cruiser. But the art of compromise becomes something of a bull-in-a-China-shop when a media scrum swells to the hundreds.

Add in reporters clamoring for access to an already volatile situation that officials are struggling to control, and the whole thing seems to become a show of testosterone. Reporters get indignant. Officials get resistant. At that point, it is the people — and their stories — that lose out.

The moment the story becomes about the reporter and what he or she is reporting about, there usually is a problem.

So, it bears repeating: Ferguson. Wasn’t. About. Us.

…to be continued in next week’s post.

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