Last May, the Huffington Post gave me a piece of its amazing platform to publish a blog and I was elated! I have been writing for years and when this opportunity arose, all of my pent up stories and ideas came flooding in.
I was about to publish my first entry, when I froze at the keyboard. Nothing sounded right. My stories and ideas had abandoned me. As a former freelance news journalist, I know first-hand that my words can have incredible power. They can incite communities and bring people out to protest local government. And I have always had the utmost respect for this power.
After sitting in front of my computer for a few hours, I knew that my first HuffPost blog would be no different. I proceeded with reverence, respect and truthful intentions to be mindful of my words and admittedly, I was drawing a blank.
Then Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri and people were posting nasty words, alarming headlines, harsh news stories, tweets and posts. I watched as those words spread across the world. The stories spurred fear, anger, hostility, sadness, and grief. The words influenced acts of violence and injury, tears and shame and forever changed the lives of many people. The national stories continued to incite anger and that's when I decided that the hours I spent front of the computer thinking about the power of words served a purpose and is now the topic of my first blog
I lived in St. Louis for 44 years until I was relocated last year for work. So instead of learning the details of this tragedy from my familiar local news community, I learned from stories by folks who were less familiar with my hometown and there was a difference in the detail. I spent hours on the internet scraping together local news and social feeds, but I still had to rely heavily on national media outlets to learn what was going on in Ferguson.
My son, who still lives in St. Louis, casually said that the national media was messing up the story and initially I chastised him! I told him that telling the story is part of what keeps us free. That if injustice has been done it has to be known! I told him that the media is the checks and balances of society and an integral part of being American. I pontificated that our First Amendment rights are to be held to the highest standard!
Something did seem off with the national news stories. St. Louis was portrayed different than it seemed in real life. When, I listen to national news, I believe the story, especially if it's about something that I am unfamiliar with, but listening to words about St. Louis, a town I have spent my life in, I noticed a distinct difference from what I heard to what I have experienced.
While listening carefully to interviews and analysis on the news, I noticed subtle yet inflammatory sentences and headlines. As the words spread and rage ensued, I began to understand what my son was trying to say and why the news stories sounded different from what I have personally experienced in Ferguson. People were being careless with the power of their words.
Big box news chains are taking snapshots of information and building context around those snapshots. We can't hear the voices inside the photos on the news, we can't see what is beyond the camera's eye, yet the uninformed public is forming deep-rooted opinions using this tiny sliver of information.
The news stories of Ferguson make it seem to an inexperienced world that this horrific event, Michael Brown's killing, was caused by blatant racism, cold-blooded police brutality all in the context that this behavior is the norm instead of the exception in Ferguson. Is it easier to write stories of extreme behavior when it isn't our own community?
What if we took a step back, paused for a moment, thought about how the use of words can change an event and apply that to Ferguson. How do we use a sentence taken from a press conference? How many times do we play that 30 second video or air a witness's interview. Do we use the term robbery or theft?
Maybe we could think about our own communities while we take that pause. Are they similar? Can it be said that the places we live are mostly good with some bad. We have good teachers, families, churches and local businesses. Yes, there is still discrimination, probably a smidge of corruption and the occasional earth-shattering event when one person does something stupid or violent. In the end, all communities have these elements so isn't Ferguson like our community too?
I apologized to my son. He wasn't taking a shot against our freedoms. He was sensing the same thing I did. That the words chosen for news stories, questions for interviews, the video edits and the pictures that go on the air are made by people who may also be part of the inexperienced public. That maybe we needed to learn the parts of the community that aren't represented in the last few days to make an accurate headline. That the power of what we write could turn a city on its heels.
So how do we better understand the power of what we write and should we take a few extra moments in front of our computer to reflect on the potential impact of our words before we send them out into the world? After they go out, they won't ever come back. We may not be privy to the impact of what we say, but we intuitively know that our words never really go away.
Remember that person who teased us in grade school? We may still recall the echo of those words when we bump into that person on the street decades later because words stay, they affect, and they ripple. Take a second to think about a time when something you said had a dramatic effect on your life, even a phrase as short as "I do."
Don Miguel Ruiz, Author of The Four Agreements said, "Be impeccable with your word. Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love."
If we could take a moment to respect the power of our words and their ripple effect on the world. If we thought a second longer about the words, adjectives, headlines or sentences we used that have deeply affected Ferguson, the memory and death of Michael Brown and the life of the police officer who shot him, would we want to take any of them back?