DEAR READER: On whether and when to send a journalist to Ferguson

Friday, August 22, 2014 | 2:08 p.m. CDT; updated 1:06 p.m. CDT, Friday, September 12, 2014

Dear Reader,

Several people have asked whether I had sent or was planning to send reporters and photographers to Ferguson to cover the protests over the past two weeks. I haven’t, even though it’s been considered several times.

One reason: staffing. As loyal readers know, the Missourian is professionally managed, but its reporters and photographers are Missouri School of Journalism students. The summer reporting pool is smaller. (It balloons from 14 to about 80 this week. Welcome to fall.)

Safety was another consideration. Missourian journalists have gone to the Bootheel after ice storms, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and New York after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Determining risk is always a top priority. I wasn’t about to send a reporter with six weeks’ experience.

The biggest reason, though, was finding the answer to this question: What could the Missourian do that no one else was already doing?

As you probably know, an army of photographers and reporters from all over the world has camped in Ferguson. (Since the shooting of Michael Brown on Aug. 9, I’ve received inquiries from five national news organizations looking for freelancers.) Waves of photographers evoke paparazzi-like scenes that capture every potential confrontation.

As a Missourian reader, I got the perspective from the ground and from the country through a heavy dose of Associated Press coverage — many days more than a page worth in the print edition — and from some excellent editorials, particularly from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. If you haven’t read George Kennedy’s column yet, I suggest you put it at the top of your to-read list.

I still would have sent journalists if I thought there was a story from Ferguson that connected in a unique way to the people of mid-Missouri. There have been at least two stories of MU students participating in the protests, but those reports emanated from here, not there. Three rallies have been organized in Columbia since Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, and I expect we’ll see more.

So, for now, we’ll keep our reporters and photographers here.

That said, the unrest in Ferguson is a local story. Race in Columbia, in Missouri, in these United States remains the story that lies just beneath so many other stories. It’s not going away anytime soon, no matter how much we might wish for another narrative.


A correction: For more than two weeks, Columbia enjoyed an unbelievable run of mid-70s temperatures 24 hours a day. At least I hope you didn’t believe the weather report on, because it was wrong. Temperature and forecasts are automatically fed into the system. The system broke, and editors couldn’t manually override it. It was finally fixed it on Thursday. To say I was embarrassed is putting it mildly. We make mistakes, but we’re usually able to correct them in a much more timely fashion.

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John Schultz August 25, 2014 | 9:50 a.m.

I think this was a good decision. I remember seeing that a KMIZ reporter was at Ferguson a day or two after the killing, and thought it odd since it's not a local story, which is what I thought Columbia media should be covering. Like Tom, I thought the St. Louis media, and national media to a degree, did a good job reporting the incidents.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith August 26, 2014 | 6:56 a.m.

At John and Tom:

Actually, the decision was entirely consistent with the Missourian's historic policy. The Missourian doesn't cover events which take place annually or otherwise at its SUPPOSED "sister" campuses, so why consider sending personnel to Ferguson, Missouri, which does not host a University of Missouri "System" campus?

[Of course should something "bad" - indeed, horrendous and/or highly derogatory - occur at UMKC, UMSL or MS&T we're certain the Missourian won't overlook it. After all, nothing good or useful could ever be expected to happen at any of those campuses, could it?]

Perhaps the most interesting feature of this long-running charade is that each of those other campuses has its own paid and professionally competent public information staff; it is NOT necessary to send a Missourian reporter to another UM "System" campus to obtain timely, accurate information about that campus or what is happening there.

This post needs to end with the observation that according to the "System's" own published data those other campuses, combined, have the majority of the "System's" students.

All that said, why would any intelligent person in Columbia, Missouri want to know about the other campuses? After all, ISN'T IGNORANCE SUPPOSED TO BE BLISS? Well of course it is.

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