Steven L. Youngblood: The media went overboard in Ferguson

08/24/2014 10:00 AM

08/24/2014 6:00 PM

Seldom have the stakes been higher for the media as they moved in to cover the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo. Responsible coverage could help inform and empower the community to react non-violently, while irresponsible coverage could fuel the flames while demonizing Brown.

There has been some productive, analytical coverage, including “Violence in Ferguson Didn’t Have to Happen,” (Kansas City Star, 8-17), a CNN town hall meeting about race (8-19), and an insightful NPR report about life amid turmoil in Ferguson (8-19).

However, much of the Ferguson coverage has been superficial, sensational and lacking context, while feeding well-worn stereotypes and narratives.

A Lexis-Nexis advanced news search of 318 newspapers was conducted Aug. 18. This search shows hits but, of course, doesn’t address tone, nuance, or quality. Still, the results are revealing. The news search showed intense coverage of “Ferguson, Missouri” ( 389 hits) and “Ferguson, Missouri and riots” (197). Also, a simple Google search turned up 1,320,000 “Ferguson riots” videos.

While no one would suggest that the riots and civil unrest should be ignored by journalists, one could argue that excessive media coverage of the unrest in Ferguson overshadows reporting about the reason for the unrest—Michael Brown’s killing.

The coverage in Ferguson is, ironically, reminiscent of traditional war coverage that centers on the “action,” who bombed whom, while marginalizing the underlying causes of the conflict and the search for peace. Our news search uncovered two stories under “Ferguson, Missouri and peaceful solutions,” and zero for “Ferguson, Missouri and finding peace.”

Michael Brown’s portrayal is also revealing.

The database search shows 1,061 newspaper stories about Brown. Of these, “Michael Brown and victim” had just five hits, and “Michael Brown and innocent” had six hits. Meanwhile, “Michael Brown and criminal” has a whopping 337 hits—meaning that stories linking Brown to criminal activity occurred in over one-third of the total stories mentioning his name. Most telling is the ubiquity of the police-released video of Brown allegedly stealing cigars from a convenience store. There were 3.2 million YouTube videos posted of this incident (or commentary about it), and 17.5 million Google hits.

The coverage of Brown himself typifies the media narrative of young black men as criminals and thugs, a narrative borne out by researchers and illustrated by the press’ treatment of the convenience store robbery video. Most media responsibly noted that the robbery did not seem to have a connection to the attempted arrest of Brown. Yet as anchors repeated this over and over, they also showed the video over and over, leaving a powerfully negative impression on the viewer that no words or disclaimers can wash away.

More responsible reporting using a peace journalism framework would not blame the victim. Better reporting would give a broader range of peacemakers a voice, and explore solutions to the crisis in Ferguson. More responsible coverage would eschew the sensational, live video of the stand-off. Better still, media could have proactively spotlighted the striking racial imbalance in Ferguson between the police and the population, and in the process encourage a much-needed dialogue.

Given the tone and volume of the reporting, it’s hard to conclude that media coverage hasn’t exacerbated the crisis in Ferguson.

Steven L. Youngblood is the director of the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University in Parkville, Mo. To reach him, send email to steve.youngblood@park.edu.

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