In the fall of 1965, with the number of American cities engulfed in race riots mounting, more than 75 newspaper and television reporters gathered at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism to discuss “The Racial Crisis and the News Media.” At the end, professors Paul Fisher and Ralph Lowenstein wrote: “The Negro revolution . . . has posed a problem of ethics for newsmen. At what point do they — or should they — cease to be observers and become participants?”
Over five decades later, it is a question that serves as the beating heart of Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery’s riveting new book, “ ‘They Can’t Kill Us All’: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement.’’ The account blends journalism procedural and personal memoir in chronicling Lowery’s coverage of Movement for Black Lives protests in Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland, Charleston, S.C., and Baltimore after fatal police shootings of African Americans.
The personal challenges faced by the young black journalist are thought-provoking and compelling. But another unique and valuable aspect of “They Can’t Kill Us All” revolves around Lowery’s examination of the complications of reporting in an era when anyone with a camera phone or social media account can break a story.
The book opens with the shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson officer on Aug. 9, 2014. Lowery learned about the killing on Instagram from a video uploaded by Brittany Noble, a local news reporter and friend. “I was sucked into the story I wanted to cover and understand, even if I would struggle for the next year to reconcile my own role in the chaos,” Lowery writes. “The streets of Ferguson, and later Baltimore, were flooded with newly declared citizen journalists . . . They, along with scores of live-streamers — who used phone apps to broadcast live images and audio from the often chaotic demonstrations and nights of rioting — played a crucial role in the creation of the movement. But my role, I knew, was different. My fundamental professional obligation was to fairness and truth.”
While the Movement for Black Lives has received extensive media coverage, Lowery’s insider perspective offers fresh insights into what it means to cover a broad national story about race in a rigorous and sustained way. As a reporter following stories from city to city, he describes the difficulty and importance of cultivating sources that can provide accurate information. He describes working with colleagues on a broader effort to collect police-shootings data. He explains the technical and logistical decisions he made regarding whether to record or live tweet a press conference with the Brown family. “This was a story that had played out on social media; I reasoned that that was where my reporting efforts should continue to focus for now. I’d use my phone to send tweets and take notes by hand — even if it meant I’d end up with a more disjointed and incomplete set of direct quotations.”
Lowery also wrestles with remaining impartial in fraught situations, expressing regret at using the word “plant” in a tweet describing North Charleston police officer Michael Slager placing a stun gun next to the body of Walter Scott. Lowery’s editor chided him, “The more emotional the story . . . the less emotional the reporter.” The work exacted a personal toll: “The last seven months of my life had been a constant stream of black death. I spent my days cold-calling the families of those killed by police officers, and my evenings catching up on the hashtags and viral videos of police killings that I had somehow missed during the work day. The dead looked like my father, my younger brothers, and me.”
The book’s title, “They Can’t Kill Us All,” is taken from a sign left by a demonstrator protesting the shooting death of teenager Antonio Martin by police in December 2014 in Berkeley, Mo., just outside of Ferguson. While Lowery covered many cases that received a great deal of media attention, such as those of Brown, Scott, and Tamir Rice, he also was there for lesser known ones like those of Martin, Stephon Averyhart, Vonderrit Myers, and Corey Jones.
Lowery comes to question the news coverage, which too often focuses on the personal details of the dead, trying to litigate people into good guys and bad guys — and missing the point. “There are no isolated incidents,” he writes, “yet the media’s focus on the victim and the officer inadvertently erases the context of the nation’s history as it relates to race, policing, and training for law enforcement.’’
This kind of incisive analysis, based on solid reporting, points the way to an answer to the initial question: how best to remain trustworthy observer and also to participate.
THEY CAN’T KILL US ALL:
Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement
By Wesley Lowery
Little, Brown, 256 pp., $27Matthew Delmont is a professor of history at Arizona State University and the author of three books, including “Making Roots: A Nation Captivated’’ and “Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation.’’ You can reach him on Twitter at @mattdelmont