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Ferguson shows that real life is not a story

08/31/2014 10:00 AM

08/31/2014 3:00 PM

Aristotle allegedly said nature abhors a vacuum, and the same is true in reporting the news. When little reliable information is available, rumor and speculation rush in to fill the void.

No recent event illustrates this more clearly than the death of Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. As of this writing, we still know precious little about what really happened.

We know there was some kind of altercation between Brown, who was black, and Officer Darren Wilson, who is white. We know Brown was struck six times, according to a private autopsy. We know his body lay in the street for several hours after the incident.

St. Louis County police have not made public a full account of Officer Wilson’s version of events. So beyond that, there is much conjecture. A vacuum.

That frustrates everyone — journalists and the public alike. In the absence of a clear narrative, it’s our inclination as human beings to try to piece together what “really” happened.

We are creative, literary creatures. We see patterns where there is only chaos. We look for a beginning, a middle and an end in current events, though serious students of history know life doesn’t really unfold in linear fashion like a novel.

I’ve heard from readers who have clearly made up their minds about what happened in the street that hot August afternoon. To some, Brown was the picture of innocence, mercilessly gunned down either with his hands above his head in surrender or with his back turned while fleeing in terror.

To others, Wilson was reacting reasonably to a vicious attack by the 6-foot-3, almost 300-pound Brown.

And both sides want news coverage of the events to reflect these presuppositions. The problem, of course, is that we simply don’t know enough yet.

Our current news media culture only reinforces the search for the binary, for the good guy/bad guy angle to this or any news event.

If you tune into partisan news outlets, you hear interpretations of what little is known that supports one side of the conjecture.

Our social media feeds are even more insidious in keeping us from views we might find challenging. We curate our Twitter feeds to show us points of view we enjoy. That often means we follow people and publications we’re constitutionally likely to agree with.

On Facebook, the network’s algorithm is designed to show you posts that it has determined you are likely to be interested in. The more things you “like,” the more you’re training it to display similar news and comment.

It’s easy to see how the echo chamber develops and how we individually customize it, even unconsciously.

I continue to believe that the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin received vastly more attention than it deserved. It became a proxy — a too-neat story line for people to project their thoughts and fears about race relations, youth crime, gun culture and a host of other issues. But at its heart, it was about two people and a tragic outcome. It wasn’t really national news.

Ferguson is different, though. It involves the very real public concern of how law enforcement polices the community it serves. It deserves close scrutiny and scrupulous attention to fact, not conjecture.

Derek Donovan will return Sept. 4.

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