Stations Walk Fine Line With Riot Coverage
After more than a week of tumult in suburban Ferguson, Mo., St. Louis TV news crews continue working around the clock to cover what for many is the most complex — and combustible — story of their careers.
As fatigue starts to set in, reporters, photographers and multimedia journalists, many using bonded cellular equipment, are in the thick of the latenight lawlessness, while also chastising the national media for creating the impression that the rioting is more widespread than it is.
“This is a very unfair portrayal of our city," says Audrey Prywitch, news director at Tribune-owned Fox affiliate KTVI. "Down the street, life goes on."
Local news execs say the challenges of covering the Ferguson story, which started when a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, on Saturday, Aug. 9, are multifold — as well as unprecedented, even in a market full of seasoned vets who have covered everything from devastating hurricanes to the Ted Bundy murders.
The logistics of covering the story are difficult: different law enforcement agencies have been in control at different times, there are inherent safety concerns that come with covering protests that turn violent, and the most explosive events have occurred between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m.
An outbreak of violence late last Friday, for example, caused KMOV, Meredith’s CBS affiliate, to mobilize after its late news signed off. News Director Brian Thouvenot says coverage that night, which went from about 1:30 a.m. to 8 a.m., was “crude and raw,” depending on just two live feeds from bonded cellular systems, an in-studio anchor and a radio journalist’s reports via iPhone.
“It was amazing to see how it unfolded all morning long. We saw the looting take place, we saw when business owners arrived and the crews in the field were able to see the magnitude of destruction,” Thouvenot says.
On Saturday morning, a reporter walked up to a business to find civilians there protecting it with guns, he says. “These are things many of us have never seen before."
The continual but unpredictable spikes in so many different aspects of the story — from latenight press conferences and ebbs and flows in violence to Sunday’s release of autopsy results — also pose challenges in coverage.
KMOV and KSDK, Gannett’s NBC affiliate, have brought in crews from other stations in their groups to help with the coverage.
The ABC affiliate is Sinclair's KDNL, but it doesn't produce news.
Crews are working 12-hour shifts, using mobile bonded cellular gear for live feeds. Thouvenot, who has abandoned the use of live trucks for this story, says having five LiveU units has been a huge boon to covering Ferguson, as crews wouldn’t be able to report from the heart of the discord otherwise.
“Without them, a lot of this wouldn’t be possible,” he says
Stations are continuously weighing whether events like news conferences are worth breaking into regular programming.
The story has fueled news ratings – KMOV GM Mark Pimentel says his latenight news Sunday had three times the number of its usual viewers. Yet, at the same time, viewers are growing weary of the story, too. “It’s just constant decisions,” he says.
But news managers say some of the less tangible challenges of covering Ferguson trump logistics. That includes bringing local perspective to the volatile story while, as Prywitch puts it, being “very careful that we are not the ones that strike the match.”
The locals say national news outlets, largely reporters and stringers from Chicago, started trickling into Ferguson last Monday, a day after a candlelight vigil to honor Brown turned violent. By yesterday, when NBC News anchor Brian Williams broadcast from the scene, members of the media were threatening to outnumber the protesters.
Pimentel says the national coverage of what is occurring in "maybe a four- or five-block area is impacting what the nation is thinking of us in St. Louis, and the reality is that people from outside the city are now participants in this.”
“What everyone is seeing is the mile-and-a-half block in Ferguson and thinking its Armageddon,” says KSDK Station Manager Marv Danielski. “It’s clearly a horrible place at the moment for the good people who live there. But it’s got to be understood in that context too.”
For KSDK, that has included covering the impact the violence is having on everyday people — the Ferguson residents who can’t get to work or the grocery store because buses are not running, and the business owners who fear they will never be able to recoup their losses.
It also includes factoring in the emotionally charged nature of the story into every decision, down to creating a Ferguson graphics package that does not reference violence, Danielski says.
Last Wednesday, KMOV hosted a primetime town hall meeting featuring the Ferguson mayor and police chief. The station also did stories on the militarization of police forces well before the national media jumped on the story, Thouvenot says.