How St. Louis Public Radio pulled off an amazing #BeyondFerguson event

By Jacob Caggiano


Updated 9/5/14 11:28 PDT with correction: the original story misstated that Mayor Knowles admitted wrongdoing on the handling of Brown’s body. The sentence has been changed to state that it was Isom who challenged the mayor’s explanation.

Community upheaval is a big process. Especially when it involves violence, looting, tear gas, rubber bullets, mass arrests, racial overtones, and the entire world watching.

There are so many angles to the Ferguson, MO story, that we’ve all likely hit some level of Ferguson fatigue, but let us offer you one more question to consider.

What do you do as a journalist who wants to involve their community as part of the news process, particularly when that community is in need of healing?

Last week, St. Louis Public Radio held a public forum at Wellspring Church in Ferguson that had some incredibly moving moments, and makes a compelling case for community engagement on behalf of news organizations.

A young man approached the stage to lift his shirt (above photo), look the mayor in the eye, and show him the rubber bullet wound that he endured while protesting. A young woman brought testimony of threats by the police, who told her she didn’t have first amendment rights, as if she didn’t know otherwise. The mayor’s explanation on leaving Brown’s body in the street for several hours was challenged by the former chief of police as not only a mistake in law enforcement, but human relationships. Everyone brought home a civics lesson on the city charter and what the mayor can and can’t do when it comes to police oversight.

These powerful moments transpired because the right people were in the right room at the right time, all sharing information that mattered to them.

So how did St. Louis Public Radio make it happen?

Finding the perfect moderator

National Public Radio’s Michel Martin was a fantastic choice. Many were disappointed in the cancellation of her show “Tell me more,” and wanted to see her shine for their community. She represented a certain draw and authority, but also the listening skills that help build trust among participants.

When bringing in a moderator from out of town, it’s important to be a good host and provide context. Linda Lockhart, St. Louis Public Radio’s outreach coordinator, welcomed Martin at the airport at 11am and took her on a driving tour around town with the crew. Visiting several important landmarks, they even stopped and chatted with folks to open up a sense of place in the moderator’s mind before the 6pm event that evening.

As a bonus, NPR brought in their own 4 person production team that pulled an all nighter to edit down the 2 hour+ recording into a beautiful ~8 minute audio story for Morning Edition. With some additional help on hand, both St. Louis Public Radio and NPR producers got to chat and collaborate a bit on their work.

Assembling a diverse panel

Several public forums had already happened (one by the NAACP, one by Wellspring pastor Willis Johnson) but this was a first to feature an open dialog with Mayor Knowles, who had been keeping a relatively low profile up until this point. There was also a state level politician (former Missouri state senator Rita Days), a police representative (retired police chief, professor, and recently named Missouri public safety officer Daniel Isom), and a local community organizer (Kimberly McKinney, CEO of Habitat for Humanity Saint Louis).

There was criticism after the event that young people weren’t represented on the panel, though the station had made attempts to find someone.

Finding a respectable venue

Being in a house of worship might not always be the right choice for all public forums, but in this case it worked well to bring a safe space and keep things civil.

The acoustics weren’t ideal for setting up microphones and recording a radio broadcast, not to mention the air conditioning broke and people were sweltering, but the benefits of a place that commanded a respectful tone paid off.

Using technology to expand reach

The #BeyondFerguson hashtag was monitored on Twitter by engagement editor Kelsey Proud, who added a layer of curation into the mix, feeding her selections into a live blog using the tool ScribbleLive. She worked in tandem with teammate Erica Smith, who would send out tweets from @StlPublicRadio while Proud kept a handle on the live blog.

The idea was that people who wanted to participate remotely could follow the ScribbleLive feed as a quieter, more digestible alternative to reading the #BeyondFerguson hashtag directly. It also made it possible for them to set up a live viewing screen at the event to take questions remotely from Twitter. It’s important to note the team effort involved, as they had additional help from reporter Rachel Lippmann to get a grasp on the feed, moderate the questions, and keep things running smoothly.

In addition, Proud used Storify to contextualize all the social media and have a followup post ready for the next day. They also kept an eye on Facebook as well as the Disqus comments that came in after the followup story was posted on their website.

The heavy use of social media had an additional effect in shifting the audience demographic. A little ways into the event, a stream of young people poured in to participate after seeing it pop up on their Twitter feeds.

The choice of the hashtag #BeyondFerguson had a certain risk factor because it was already being used for other purposes and wasn’t specifically unique to the event. However, it also carried a huge benefit as a propellant to keep the dialog going afterward, which is often the biggest challenge.

Building supporters along the way

In addition to her moderation duties at the public forum, Martin also appeared the next day for a special 8am breakfast with select community members and bigger station donors. This kind of value-add creates incentive and appreciation for supporting local public media.

Throughout the Ferguson story, St. Louis Public Radio relied in part on American Public Media’s Public Insight Network (PIN) to engage citizens on matters of race, community policing, education and to connect their reporting more closely with the community. Outreach coordinator Lockhart also tapped PIN to invite community members to the live event, and to recruit three dozen new sources into the network to help with future stories.

Want to learn more about engaging with your community? Please join our discussion group and help steer our content.

Photo Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

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How St. Louis Public Radio uses community voices to steer their Ferguson coverage