Think you have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in Ferguson, Missouri? You may not, even if you’ve been watching a lot of cable news. Especially if you’ve been watching a lot of cable news. If the media’s job is to give viewers and readers an accurate and full idea of what’s really going on, we have to acknowledge that there is a long way to go. Of course, Ferguson is not an isolated case. But it is a chance for those of us in the media to expand our understanding of our role in covering the news.
We know there is racial division in Ferguson. The police officer who shot Michael Brown on Aug. 9 is part of a force that’s 94-percent white in a town that’s 67-percent black. The anger, resentment and concerns of the protesters are real. So is the disturbing trend of the militarization of our police force, and the way that minority communities bear the brunt of this. But endlessly rerunning protests getting out of hand, looting, tear-gassing and arrests is not giving viewers a full picture of what is happening in the community at large. Yes, all these things have happened, but what else is happening in the community? For much of cable news, nothing else. And that’s simply not true.
In fact, one does not have to harbor the kind of delusions evidently held by Ferguson Mayor James Knowles, who claimed, “There’s not a racial divide in the city,” to see there is another side to Ferguson. The conflict, the arrests, the looting, the tear gas, the division — that’s a part of the story. But only a part. At HuffPost we have certainly been covering that part, but we are also committed to telling the “untold story” (as our splash put it on Tuesday). This untold story is one of compassion, ingenuity, kindness, trust, collaboration and community — of the many who have reached out to help those caught in middle of the conflict, whether children who couldn’t go to school or strangers without a place to stay.
Here are some of the stories we have run this week: There were looters, but there were also many people protecting stores from being looted, and cleaning up and giving support to those affected by the looting; there were people donating to local food pantries and offering rides and shelter to reporters; there were religious leaders from all faiths bolstering a sense of community; and there was Sonny Dayean, who owns a cellphone store and, as the riots began Saturday night, was afraid for his store and fought to make his way back to it.
HuffPost’s Ryan Reilly spoke to Dayean and discovered that when he finally got there early the next morning, he saw that his store had indeed been broken into. But what he didn’t expect was what happened next:
The good part is the people who were out here were waiting outside, they wanted to help me. So as soon as I got here, they said ‘Can I help you? Can I do this, can I do that?’ … So that was very overwhelming, I didn’t think I’d come in there to be so overwhelmed by the community.
Congregations of all denominations were busy cleaning up and helping people. The Passage Community Church in Florissant helped organize a cleanup. “I was very encouraged coming out here today, seeing all the groups helping,” said Elise Park, a stay-at-home mom who brought along her two young children. “It’s an opportunity for me to invest and really become part of the community.”
In fact, HuffPost was a direct recipient of that community spirit. After Ryan Reilly was arrested, along with the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery, HuffPost Live producer Christine Conetta found herself in a bit of a jam. She was blocked by a police wall from getting to Ryan, who had all the equipment, including the rental-car keys. She couldn’t even get to the police station to meet him there. Then the tear gas began, sending her fleeing into a neighborhood she was unfamiliar with. One stranger gave her a T-shirt to block the tear gas. Another helped her find her way back to the memorial site, where yet another offered her a ride to the police station. “The community was just very welcoming,” said Christine. “Nobody was asking why I was there. Everybody said they appreciated the media being there and covering the ordeal and never had any qualms about answering questions.”
That rallying spirit of coming together went beyond Ferguson. The Wisconsin Hope Lab helped secure college scholarships for the three siblings of Michael Brown. And since the first day of school for Ferguson kids has been moved back several days — along with the lunches many of them depend on — Raleigh, North Carolina, teacher Julianna Mendelsohn, in collaboration with a food bank in St. Louis, took to Fundly to raise money to fill in the food gap.
And there were hundreds more expressions of the better angels of our nature, a sample of them captured by our reporters on Twitter: Ferguson residents helping clean up; giving out diapers and children’s books; handing out water, cookies and juice; setting up a food station for the protesters; giving the protesters free pizza; helping protesters hit with tear gas; letting strangers stay in their homes; lending a cellphone so someone could call his mother; handing out free lunches to anyone in the community — including the police; giving free coffee and wifi to members of the press covering the story; and protecting a store from being looted.
It’s all part of a larger picture of Ferguson that hasn’t been very much in evidence in the media. But for Ferguson committeewoman Patricia Bynes it’s not unexpected. “I’m not surprised because I live here, and I know that we have great people here,” she told HuffPost. “So during times like this, this is when those people just step up and just fill the need.”
To illustrate her point, Bynes recounted having seen a woman walking around during the protests with a gallon of milk — to help those suffering from the tear gas. “Everybody has their weapon of choice,” Bynes said. “Last night, she was my hero.” And Bynes herself got in on the act too, giving a ride to a stranger, who then thanked her on Twitter.
Though she says it’s been “heart-wrenching” to watch her community struggle, Bynes said it’s also “brought out the best” in Ferguson. “There’s something remarkable going on,” she said.
In fact, this remarkable spirit of compassion and reaching out is the norm during crises. That’s the focus of a fascinating book by Rebecca Solnit called A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. Here Solnit shows how the real story of what happens when things break down is actually the opposite of the cherry-picked narrative the media create. She describes how, even in times of danger and pain, powerful feelings of community are evoked — born from our hardwired need to connect. It’s a “sense of immersion in the moment and solidarity with the others caused by the rupture in everyday life,” she writes, “an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive. … We don’t even have a language for this emotion, in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear. We cannot welcome disaster, but we can value the responses, both practical and psychological.”
And this is incredibly important, because it shows us what’s possible, not only for ourselves but for our society. Solnit goes on to write about how we’re often wistful for a supposed “paradise” of community spirit that always seems to have resided only in some long-forgotten era. But it’s in moments of crisis that we see our power to create it for ourselves:
[W]hat if paradise flashed up among us from time to time — at the worst of times? What if we glimpsed it in the jaws of hell? These flashes give us, as the long ago and far away do not, a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.
Solnit’s lovely description of that potential has actually been borne out by science. A 2006 study published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science found that in the case of Hurricane Katrina, contrary to “the imagery employed by the media,” what filled the government and institutional vacuum was “a great variety of new, nontraditional or emergent behavior.” Yes, there was looting, misery and indefensible neglect, but it wasn’t the whole story. “Not being able to act in traditional ways,” write the authors, “most of the citizens and groups in New Orleans as well as the rest of Louisiana rose to the challenge by engaging in primarily new but relevant coping behavior.”
But that’s not what most people saw. This is why the media need to expand their understanding of their role in times of crisis. The media’s job is to report not just all that’s dreadful, corrupt, dysfunctional and violent in our world but what’s working, and the powerful and humane ways people in communities respond to that violence and corruption and dysfunction.
We often hear the bromide about how it’s not the media’s job to report on the houses that didn’t burn down or the planes that didn’t crash. And I’m not saying they should. A house not burning down or a plane not crashing is normal and unremarkable. But the response we’ve seen in Ferguson, and during other crises, is remarkable. We’ve seen some extremes of bad behavior in Ferguson, but we’ve also seen some extremes of good behavior — though in the media we mostly see only the former.
The spirit on display in Ferguson — as it was during Katrina — is a glimpse not just of who we may become but of who we are right now. It’s there, it’s on display, and it’s manifesting itself. And perhaps we would glimpse this side of ourselves more often if the media acknowledged it more often. It’s not entirely absent, but too often it’s relegated to the “hero” segment closing the local news, or to the Thanksgiving piece down at the local food bank.
We also know that what the media choose to shine a light on matters. The phenomenon of copycat crimes and the contagion effect of suicides are well established. So perhaps we’d see more than glimpses of our better angels if the media decided to include them as the vital part of the story that they in fact are. I’m not asking for depictions of utopia or a Pollyanna filter on the news. At The Huffington Post we’re relentless in our coverage of corruption, injustice, poverty, joblessness, inequality and racial discrimination, but we are equally relentless in giving our readers and viewers a full and accurate idea of the entire human story. And that includes a lot of good news, which is why we even have an entire section dedicated to it.
Giving only one side breeds cynicism and a sense of hopelessness. The divisions and inequities exposed in Ferguson are real and formidable. But so is the spirit of those in Ferguson who have risen to this challenge with compassion, empathy and trust. And for those who want to join them, here are 10 ways you too can help. And we are definitely going to keep the focus on Ferguson long after the national spotlight dims — both on the conflicts and divisions and on the acts of compassion and giving that bring the community together.