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Why Police Will Continue to Arrest Journalists in Ferguson

johnsonpress.jpg
Danny Wicentowski
Captain Ron Johnson briefs the media.
At the end of another dangerous night in Ferguson, Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson offered an emotional plea to the media on Monday: Please stop putting officers in danger and glamorizing violent agitators in your quest for Internet virality.

Johnson seemed near tears as he illustrated the danger the press face in Ferguson -- earlier that night, reporters disobeyed police orders and fled the media corral to take pictures of a car parked across the street before officers could secure two guns. Johnson said police suspect the occupants of the car opened fire at the Canfield Green Apartments that night.

Journalists defied Johnson's plea, and it's easy to understand why they're even more distrusting than usual. Any journalist covering Ferguson at night has likely been tear gassed, if not hit by debris, rubber bullets, pepper pellets or bean bags. Police have threatened to shoot, mace and arrest reporters, sometimes on live TV or feeds. Officers have detained reporters from the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Getty Images and more, releasing them later without answers.

See also: Watch Police in Ferguson Arrest, Tear Gas Journalists [VIDEO]

"Yes, we may take some of you into custody," Johnson told press on Monday. "But when we do take you into custody and we have found out you're a journalist, we've taken the proper action. But in the midst of it, we cannot...in the midst of it, in the midst of chaos and trying to move people on, we have to be safe. We have to be safe."

With the eyes of the world upon them, members the international press corps covering Ferguson have become their own story, sometimes because they're treated roughly and sometimes because it seems they're heightening, not just recording, the tension. From a Los Angeles Times reporter quoting an MSNBC reporter:

Media voices amplify across Twitter as reporters point to their fear, bulletproof jackets and wounds as proof: If this happens to us, imagine how Ferguson police treat regular ol' folks.

Seasoned reporters, bloggers, podcasters, activists with popular Twitter feeds, students, hobbyist photographers -- all are converging on this St. Louis suburb, often outnumbering protesters to tell what's become the most important domestic news story of the year at a time when peace feels impossible for this St. Louis suburb.

And police can't keep up, Johnson said.

"I'm going to tell you, in the midst of chaos, when officers are running around, we're not sure who is a journalist and who's not," he said. "Some journalists are walking around, and all you have is a cell phone because you're from a small media outlet. Some of you may just have a camera around your neck."

In a life-and-death situation, like when armed rioters are firing at police from the apartments behind the emblematic, burned-out QuikTrip in Ferguson, how can police tell once and for all who is a journalist and who isn't? Who is protected by the First Amendment's freedom of the press, and who is not?

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University of Missouri
Sandra Davidson.
That question is almost impossible to answer, and with good reason, says Sandra Davidson, a professor of journalism law at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

"If anybody says they have easy answer, don't believe them," she tells Daily RFT. "We don't license journalists in this country, and that is very deliberate."

See all Riverfront Times coverage of Michael Brown and Ferguson.

The U.S. has struggled with the issue of distinguishing journalists from non-journalists since 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to give reporters a pass from testifying about illegal activities they witness while reporting.

"If you grant any privilege [to a journalist], then you have to follow up with a definition of who is a journalist," Davidson says. "The Supreme Court was not willing to do so."

Now fast-forward to 2014, when anyone with an Internet connection and a smartphone can grow an audience by sharing instant updates or live feeds from Ferguson.

"So who gives out the credentials? Who decides?" says Davidson. "That's a rather uncomfortable concept.... Now you get into a real sticky situation."

The answer, she says, is that there is no official answer.

"I don't think there are any absolutes when you start asking questions of safety and questions of the precise demarcation between a person's rights and the government's rights. There is little precision when you have situations that are potentially explosive," she says. "This is a situation where it's case by case, or situation by situation. I think [Johnson] is saying, under these special circumstances, this is the way it is. You remove people from the scene, and then you check later."

That's a hard answer for journalists to swallow, especially after they've been ziptied and detained. Even President Barack Obama has come out against the arrests, saying reporters should not be detained for doing their jobs.

"It's alarming for journalists," Davidson admits.

Once press obtain acceptable credentials, police have a special duty to inform and protect them -- something Johnson said his officers can't do if media don't follow orders to clear dangerous areas.

"It's a war there, and some of the journalists are saying they felt safer in Afghanistan than here," Davidson says. "Journalists do want to perform the watchdog function, but you can't perform the watchdog function if you're dead."

With police facing more touch-and-go, volatile nights of violence, looting and riots in Ferguson, Davidson has no advice, but plenty of sympathy, for reporters and officers alike.

"Police, journalists -- nobody knows exactly what is going to happen from moment to moment, and without knowing what precisely is going to happen, it's hard to say precisely what anybody should do," she says. "A lot of these people, police and journalists, are in what for them is uncharted territory."

That's a scary thing, especially for those in Ferguson facing the violence without the shield of a badge or press pass. That's something that's kept Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery up at night:

Follow Lindsay Toler on Twitter at @StLouisLindsay. E-mail the author at Lindsay.Toler@RiverfrontTimes.com.
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107 comments
Sailorman
Sailorman

they are doing all of this to push the agenda of having "official" journalists. If you are not "official" then you will be fair game. Arrest enough of the Main stream photographers and reporters, and they will be along side of the government in demanding an "official" recognition, thereby attempting to discredit anyone else who isn't part of their little clique.

Kelly Hawkins
Kelly Hawkins

The main stream media is run by major corporations, the guys with just the cell phones are the true journalists. www.wearechange.org

Kelly Hawkins
Kelly Hawkins

I have a white ass and I wish I had the money to leave. I'm scared for this country.

MalcontentMatty
MalcontentMatty

As a member of the media who was on the approved Press list (meaning I checked in and was ID'd by Ferguson police) - I was arrested, not in a dangerous area, not disobeying police orders, at 9PM while standing on a sidewalk, and was not "handled accordingly" unless when Capt. Ron Johnson says that, he means "treated like a criminal." 

I identified myself as press, showed my approved credentials, had them ripped from my neck, and was forced to the ground. I was kept with hands behind my back zipties in the back of a prisoner transport vehicle for six hours. Ferguson police are so far in over their heads that it is ridiculous. I have sympathy for them, as I have interviewed some 50+ officers in the past week - but they are incapable of dealing with a situation that is as big as this has become.

nwerle
nwerle

if  the cop had been wearing a camera none of this would be necessary but  tea baggers

oppose tax dollars spent

schwaggy
schwaggy

@justwannawrite There's something to that notion that media coverage (exploitation) helps fuel the fire. It really is a tough call.

OccupyNN
OccupyNN

@AntonioFrench covering only disorder can heighten Adding interviews with many locals and showing peaceful protest adds context/balance

BertoInPublic
BertoInPublic

@AntonioFrench Fuzzy truth. Haven't just been arresting them for safety (See Al Jazeera crew) idea of media pen shows true colors

ScottSweber3303
ScottSweber3303

@AntonioFrench because they aren't all journalists, they get in the way, and you can't tell the difference when all you have is a phone

GladiatorNprada
GladiatorNprada

@AntonioFrench part of the problem is the Captains POV that it's a war... Thus we have militarized police am ping the situation up.

YolandaYRT
YolandaYRT

Journalist who Fact Check before publishing BS are the only public avenue to keep Politicians and Police Officers half way Honest. Interesting new data suggest Police Officers in different states who are now wearing lapel video cameras states excessive abuse have declined significantly

tolson83
tolson83

@AntonioFrench I think most of the journalist I have seen arrested, CLEARLY were journalist. Article is bullshit

PR_uno
PR_uno

@AntonioFrench It's also difficult to identify police officers. When they remove their badges.

MelodyDashora
MelodyDashora

@AntonioFrench that journalists are searching for fights in the crowds and negative events. I feel so touched when seeing the positives.

MelodyDashora
MelodyDashora

@AntonioFrench powerful blog! Thanks for sharing. Hope the journalists keep safety in mind. However, it does seem, w/ more peaceful nights,

Moneyman2626
Moneyman2626

@AntonioFrench There's been 16 deaths in Chicago alone since Michael Brown killing ranging from 15 to 84 yet we never hear anything about it

AlFullbright
AlFullbright

@AntonioFrench When Daren Wilson is arrested for murder perhaps the people & the Journalists will have more incentive to finally go home.

justwannawrite
justwannawrite

@schwaggy Agree. It's sensationalizing, but also you want someone recording everything that's happening. Tough call for sure.

schwaggy
schwaggy

@justwannawrite Absolutely. I don't know that I agree w journalists being prohibited. But some cats are in there for their own personal gain

justwannawrite
justwannawrite

@schwaggy Much. I can't even bear to watch the local coverage. But hey - they're probably just glad to not be covering Iraq.

justwannawrite
justwannawrite

@schwaggy Well they are beheading journalists in Iraq so while being arrested and tear-gassed isn't fun, it still beats that.

schwaggy
schwaggy

@BenAlabaster No doubt. Agendas are certainly being worked in , all sides. One must be selective in processing reports of info.

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