MEDIA
08/17/2014 11:39 am ET Updated Aug 17, 2014

Why What Happened To Reporters In Ferguson Matters So Much

ASSOCIATED PRESS

On Wednesday, HuffPost Media tweeted the following about the scandalous treatment of reporters in Ferguson, MO:

In response, many people asked us why we only seemed to get outraged when journalists were targeted in Ferguson.

"What about the protestors?" one person asked. "Sorry for those reporters, but it's SHAMEFUL they shot an innocent kid first," another said.

These types of questions come up every time we focus on what's happening to journalists in any given situation (which happens to be HuffPost Media's particular job, but still). Why, people ask, should we pay any special attention to people who are typically much more protected than the people they cover?

The first thing to say is that anyone who only gets angry when something happens to journalists is very wrong. The situation in Ferguson was outrageous long before it started affecting members of the media. But there are a few very good reasons (and this is about to get a bit preachy, so bear with me) that we always need to highlight what happens to the press.

One is that journalists are a powerful barometer for the health of a democracy. A free press is supposed to be a key part of any free society, and it is supposed to be protected. You can tell a lot about a place by how it treats its journalists. The past few years in the United States have seen a marked increase in the threats to the civil liberties of reporters—from surveillance to harassment to prosecution—merely for, as President Obama has ironically put it, "doing their job."

It makes sense to pay attention to this trend. If something is happening to journalists—who tend to have larger megaphones and more civic power than your average citizen—then it's very likely to be happening to everyone else.

So it was that what happened to journalists in Ferguson—the violence and the teargas and the arrests—became an acute symbol of the shabby regard that the police there seemed to have for peoples' First Amendment rights.

The second reason is that attacks on the press are attacks on all of us. They are a particular outrage not because journalists are so important but because journalism itself is so important.

In some ways, the most chilling thing that happened to the media in Ferguson was the order by police for local news crews to leave the area. It was that old cliché about journalism shining light on the dark places come disturbingly to life. The police were literally trying to turn the lights out.

When people try to kick you out of a place, they are trying to make sure you don't come back. If they do that to journalists, they are trying to decrease the flow of information that the journalists can provide the rest of us. They are trying to keep all of us in the dark. So we need to do what we can to ensure that doesn't happen — and that means raising as much hell as we can when journalists, whether of the professional or the citizen variety, are attacked.

The third reason—and this is admittedly the trickiest one—is that journalists make other journalists care about what's going on. There's no question that a lot of mainstream reporters only started fully paying attention to Ferguson when HuffPost's Ryan Reilly and the Washington Post's Wesley Lowery were hauled out of a local McDonald's.

As Politico put it, "An important story — involving the shooting of an unarmed African-American man by a police officer, public anger over the lack of details from the police and a heavily armed response to protests — had become something that hit home to journalists."

It is depressing that so many members of the media seem to only be moved to action when one of "their own" is affected. But such self-absorption can have its uses. Journalists play a huge role in shaping the way that stories are told. When they see things like what happened in Ferguson, they often start paying a lot more attention to the bigger picture. Many elite journalists were clearly shocked by what they were witnessing, and they were compelled to speak up.

For evidence, we can look at the Twitter feed of Andrea Mitchell, as mainstream a journalist as they come. Before Reilly and Lowery were arrested, Ferguson played a minor role in her posts. But the second the news of the arrests broke, her feed's tone changed sharply. All of a sudden she was tweeting links to the livestreams of the turmoil in Missouri, and condemning the teargassing of Ferguson residents, and retweeting criticism of the police.

It's hard to imagine her tweeting something as provocative as this if Lowery hadn't been arrested:

Mitchell has 233,000 Twitter followers and a national news show that airs every day. You can bet that she was asking tougher questions after what happened to her fellow members of the media.

Of course, the danger is that the stories about journalists overwhelm the stories about everybody else. That shouldn't happen. The most important story in Ferguson is not located in that McDonald's. It's located on the streets of the town, and with Michael Brown's family. But we should always keep an eye on what is happening to journalists, because that matters too. A lot.

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