Covering Protest in Ferguson: “These are people, not sound bites.”

Brent McDonald is a senior video journalist with the New York Times. He produced “Standoff in Ferguson,” a three-minute video for the Times that was published on August 14th, in the midst of protests over the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

McDonald has been producing video for over ten years, and has been with the Times since 2005. Columbia Visuals spoke with him by phone from Ferguson, Missouri, on August 15th. He told us about the mood there and gave us some details on his production methods.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Columbia Visuals: What did you do when you got there?

Brent McDonald: When I first got there, I started driving around the neighborhood and noticed this huge staging ground for the various police forces that are here: state, county, various municipalities, taking up half of a huge strip mall parking lot.  You immediately get a sense that something major is going down here.

Then I went to the scene where Michael Brown was shot, and there was a memorial on the street there. You could still see the stains on the pavement and there were lots of people there who were holding sort of a prayer circle. And then went to West Florrisant and Canfield, where they were having a protest with a police escort. Then it seemed the tolerance for the protest quickly flipped, as the police created a line barricade to stop the protestors from continuing.

Then, within an hour at that one location, the huge SWAT forces came out with the sniper rifles and were heavily armored, with the high-powered sort of militarized police force that we’re now familiar with. The situation seemed to escalate from there. What I produced was really how my day went: starting with the more solemn scene around the memorial where he died and the peaceful protest, and then there was a descent into chaos as the sun went down.

CV: What has been the reaction to media presence from the protestors and the police?

BM: I’m among the protestors, talking with the protestors. I couldn’t really talk with police. My only real interaction with police is at the end of the video where they shove my camera.

Actually, there was another interaction with the police later on that evening. After the tear gas and rubber bullets, I tried to make my way back to my car. I could not get to my car because it was behind one of the police barricades, with the big tactical vehicles and bright lights shining in your face.

I said, “Gentlemen, I’m a reporter.  I just need to get to my car, to get to my computer to edit my story.” And they said, “You shall not pass. Turn around and leave now.” I kept trying to plead with them, using common sense and “I’m just trying to do my job.” And they were unyielding and did not give me an answer. I could see my car right behind them and nothing was going on.

I asked if there was a supervisor I could speak with to get permission to go to my car, and they were not having any of it. Then when I told them I was with the New York Times, they sort of laughed and they said, “That’s reason number 23 you shouldn’t be here. You need to turn around and leave right now.” I wasn’t arrested like others were, but it just weirded me out.

Police did not distinguish between reporters and protestors. They threatened everyone there. They’ve threatened arrest. There were reporters who have been shot at with rubber bullets. I wasn’t, but others have been.

Editor’s note: upon reading this post, McDonald sent us this note via email: “It’s important to mention that St. Louis Co. police later gave me a police escort to retrieve my vehicle. A colleague drove me to the command station, and we asked to speak with a white-shirted officer directly. He was understanding of my situation and in a friendly way, took time to help me out. But it took going up the chain of command.”

CV: How many hours did you spend editing?

BM: It took me a while to get to my car. I didn’t get back to the hotel until around 11 o’clock [pm]. Then I filed around 9 am [Wednesday].

CV: What kind of gear are you shooting with?

BM: I’m shooting with a Canon 5D Mark III that I’ve rigged out with a Zoom H6 that’s cabled line-in to the camera. Most of that video I went handheld, but sometimes I used a monopod with little feet. My Sennheiser mic is the MKE 600. I also shoot with a Audio Technica short cardioid mic. I’ve also shot a few clips with my iPhone but I haven’t really used any. It’s so hard to do both without an assistant to hand the camera to, or some kind of strap, when you have all these microphones and devices hanging off.

CV: Your piece is more emotional and personal than other broadcast and raw video we’ve seen. How did you accomplish that?

BM: I’m interested in narrative and I feel the best way to accomplish that through video is through, one,  getting close, being there, capturing the action, and, two, finding people who will guide you through it. And putting a story in their hands, and less superimposing my vision on it. Obviously, my print is all over the edit, how it’s crafted and shot. But I wanted to convey what it’s like to live in this neighborhood, what it’s like to live with a police force that they didn’t trust, and was, at least this with particular officer, responsible for a pretty heinous act, if indeed it happened as witnesses describe.

I think it touched a raw nerve with so many, particularly young people in the neighborhood, who have themselves experienced harassment on a regular basis by police. And feel the police haven’t been doing their duty to protect and serve and from their [the protestors’] perspective, they associate them more with a sense of denigration than with a sense of protection.

I made the decision to add music, and maybe there’s an emotional resonance that comes through that. I didn’t feel like I was editorializing. I wanted to let the piece breathe and for people to soak it in, what was happening. I feel as though subtle, smart touches of music can do that without being overbearing, or trying to direct people in how they are supposed to feel in that situation.

CV: How many people did you interview?

BM: Probably a dozen. I don’t know if you can tell from the piece, but Robert X (who I interviewed at the memorial earlier that day), I checked back with him and talked with him again–he’s the one wearing the Superman shirt– at the protest and then he’s the one who is throwing the Molotov cocktail at the end, taken off his shirt. So that’s the same person. I didn’t know what he was going to do. I happened to be checking in and found him amidst the protest. He’s sort of my line through the narrative, the arc.

CV: How does checking back in with a source help you follow the story?

BM: They may know what the plan is, what people are thinking, if they’re planning on going out, how angry they are, taking an emotional temperature response to news. I’m always talking to people on scene, but I’m always looking for the “through story” rather than just the news story at the moment, because I’m always more interested in the change that happens over a period of time.  Lots of times the best way to capture that is to stick with people, and check back with them.

CV: What’s been the most challenging part about this assignment?

BM: Knowing where to be. I experienced this covering Watertown and the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings last year, when news seems to be happening everywhere. Protests are happening over here, protests are happening over there, and there are often times I have to refer to my Twitter feed to see what’s actually going on.

Even though I’m on the ground, I don’t have a handle on everything that’s happening and where’s the best place to be. So, getting a sense of that rhythm: when things pick up, what happens in the morning, what happens in the evening.  Once you get there, you have to figure out how to get through and see what happens. Because you don’t know; maybe something will happen, maybe nothing will happen. But even if nothing happens, that’s news too.

CV: Do you use other tools to help you find the story?

BM: I have a police scanner app that I’ve resorted to a couple of times. When I first landed here, I was trying to figure out where to be, and there were shootings, and so I was listening in a bit, trying to figure out where to be.  But it was very hard to get some of those locations, because police had blocked off a lot of the main streets into Ferguson at night.  I’ve had to find a way through a lot of the back streets of the neighborhood to get where I wanted to be.

CV: What’s your advice for visual journalists covering protests?

BM: Keep eyes in the back of your head. Constantly be looking around, for your own safety and where you need to be pointing your camera. Be watching. A lot of the way people cover a protest is when it gets gnarly and shit hits the fan, but there’s a whole progression to a protest when it escalates, particularly when there’s the sort of response we’ve been seeing, and it isn’t just that moment. There’s a build-up.

That build-up, and what it’s like for the other people in the neighborhood to participate in one of these events, that’s another thing I wanted to try and capture. It’s not just about people throwing bottles and police throwing tear gas, it’s about people coming out and having a voice, expressing their anger and frustration and making sense of them, respecting that.

These are people, not sound bites.

This is Part 2 of three posts on Covering Protest in Ferguson. You can read about David Carson of the St.Louis Post-Dispatch here, and Salima Koroma of Time here

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