Until this month, Ferguson, Mo., was a St. Louis suburb, not a cause. Now it represents different things to varied people: a place of police brutality, a city roiled by racial tensions, a city unfairly treated, an example of modern-day race relations in America.
It’s 2014, and the days of Walter Cronkite — or some cookie-cutter cable-news anchor — interrupting programming to deliver breaking news is coming to an end, a generational shift. A growing number of Americans today get their first glimpse of breaking news stories through some form of social media.
That’s how the world learned about Ferguson, Mo.
Smartphones have empowered people; phone in hand, anyone can document life and upload it to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Call it citizen journalism personified. And, as we’ve seen in Ferguson, those being documented often are uncomfortable having the camera turned their way.
Journalists understand that. Newspaper photographers and television videographers are well-versed in First Amendment laws and the pitfalls that can occur when you document life. It’s almost an everyday occurrence for journalists to get an earful from someone — politician, police officer, homeowner — who asks for you to turn off the camera even though they are in a public space.
Smartphone cameras haven’t changed the rules — the First Amendment remains the First Amendment — but they have altered the paradigm. In Ferguson, reports abound of authorities forcing residents and journalists to stop videoing officers and the events taking place on that city’s streets.
Last Friday, Georgetown University law professor Paul Butler wrote in The Washington Post that “the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the rights of anyone to record police in a public place.” Butler rightly points out that police can place restrictions, such as curfews or other limitations within the law. “But they cannot stop people from standing on the street and filming them while they make arrests, detain suspects or otherwise enforce the law.”
In a sense, police work is the ultimate public service. Officers are trained to protect and serve, regardless of situation or circumstance. Public trust is vital. Officers’ jobs aren’t for the weak or unsure. Police are easy to criticize because their actions are so public, but where would we be without those willing to go to work each day knowing their lives might be at risk before their shift is over?
Among Ferguson’s many lessons to America is that it’s not merely convenience or lurid interest that should drive us to want important events documented on video. It’s a quest for openness and truth.