5Q+1 interview: Godbeat pro Lilly Fowler on covering faith and the front lines in #Ferguson

"Everyone has an agenda."

That's one lesson Lilly Fowler said she has learned covering faith and the front lines in Ferguson, Missouri, the St. Louis suburb engulfed in racial unrest and sometimes violent protests since the Aug. 9 police shooting of Michael Brown.

Less than a year ago, Fowler joined the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as its full-time religion writer.

Born in Mexico and raised on the border of Arizona and Mexico, Fowler earned two master's degrees: one in theology from the University of Notre Dame and one in journalism from the University of Southern California. 

And she shared this personal note: "I like punk and psychedelic music!"

Q: What has been your role on the Ferguson story? What kind of hours has this required? 

A: I’m the religion reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, so my primary role has been to find the faith angles in Ferguson. But this has been an all-consuming story, with the entire newsroom working long hours, so I’ve often been deployed to cover stories outside the realm of religion. I recently covered Black Friday protests related to Ferguson, for example.

Q: Some reporters have clashed with protesters and/or police. Have you found yourself in harm's way? What steps have you taken to protect yourself?

A: My phone was snatched from my hands in Ferguson back in August, but that was easily replaced. After the grand jury decision was announced, as I was driving home late that night, I ran smack into the middle of some protesters breaking windows in businesses walking distance from where I live. I felt pretty uneasy as I walked around my neighborhood and constantly looked behind my back, but I soon ran into a couple of my colleagues.

The newsroom equipped us with a good amount of safety supplies, from gas masks to portable battery chargers. But I haven’t been in harm’s way as much as some of my other colleagues. The tense nights I did spend in Ferguson, I was able to avoid any incidents. A lot of the time, you could feel the tension building and predict when the tear gas was coming, etc. Our photojournalists were hit the hardest because they really had to stay in the middle of the action.

I’ve heard horror stories of reporters from elsewhere being held at gunpoint in Ferguson. I certainly didn't experience anything like that. The vast majority of protesters committed to the movement, to police reform, are peaceful.

Q: What kind of faith angles have you discovered related to Ferguson? Do you have a favorite story you've done? 

A: Clergy have been involved in Ferguson from day one. Solid religion reporting, however, doesn’t always lend itself very easily to breaking news. And while the Post-Dispatch takes its religion coverage seriously, sometimes my religion reporting would get boiled down to a few graphs, which would be included in a bigger story just because there’s been so much going on.

Still, a couple of my favorite stories have been quick turnaround pieces. For example, I covered a clergy protest at the Ferguson Police Department. It was pouring rain, and while I think clergy meant well, the protest took a strange turn, with some in the crowd yelling at the officers to confess their sins and repent. The next day some in the community complained there was a coercive element to the requests made by clergy.

Q: Social media, including Twitter, has been a key aspect of reporting on Ferguson. How do you balance tweeting with your more traditional journalistic duties?

A: I definitely have a new relationship with Twitter after this story. We are expected to tweet, interview, take notes and file a story all at the same time. I found it difficult at first, but I learned to manage my tweets and use them as notes. It’s a balancing act, but it can also be a lot of fun. When you have a great speaker like Al Sharpton, for example, it’s fun to tweet reactions to his speech, etc.

Q: What, if anything, has the Ferguson experience taught you as a journalist? Are you a better reporter today than when you joined the Post-Dispatch back in January?

A: I worked for an investigative outlet started by a couple of former Los Angeles Times reporters before taking my job at the Post-Dispatch. We worked on long-term stories, so I didn’t have a lot of daily experience. My experience at the paper so far has certainly forced me to become a faster writer. I try to do more editing in my head than I used to. I also think I'm more skeptical of even the most well-intentioned people. Everyone has an agenda.

Q: What else should GetReligion readers know about the Ferguson story or the Post-Dispatch's coverage of it? Or even the national media's approach?

A: I think the national media has sometimes made the mistake of framing Michael Brown’s death as a Ferguson issue. It’s not. Protests are happening all over St. Louis, not to mention the country. Sometimes I think the public doesn’t realize the extent to which Ferguson is part of St. Louis.

The Post-Dispatch has, like most any other media outlet covering this story, received its fair share of criticism for its coverage. It’s an important story but also a very emotional one, with strong opinions from people on all sides. This feels like a historic moment, and the reporters that I know, whether or not you agree with their coverage, care very much about what they’re doing.

Emotionally, it’s been a roller coaster, but I feel lucky to be part of it all. I hope we all come out better for it.

Please respect our Commenting Policy