Public Editor

Stories such as Ferguson are difficult to discuss as news, not opinion


By far the story I’ve spoken with readers about the most this week was the centerpiece of the Sunday print edition. It was a look at how the U.S. has changed in the year since the death of Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson.

It included a variety of voices and data, and explored such uneasy topics as attitudes toward law enforcement among different racial groups. Some of those quoted were positive, and others negative.

The most common complaint was voiced by one emailer today:

“To say that Michael Brown was ‘…the unarmed black 18-year-old shot by white police officer Darren Wilson...’ is like saying Donald Trump is running for president. There is an awful lot that is unsaid. The facts of the Michael Brown shooting should not be ignored.”

I can’t argue with that though Brown’s death was really the taking-off point for the story. It didn’t attempt to recount the incident, which has been done ad nauseum over the past year.

But that goes two ways. Many of the readers I spoke to wanted the story to underline that Michael Brown had been seen on security footage strong-arming a convenience store clerk, and that he had alleged, but unproven, juvenile criminal records.

None of this information is new of course. But on the other hand, telling the “whole story” also means that facts about Darren Wilson that his supporters may be uncomfortable with as well should be included, including details about his attitudes on race from a recent New Yorker interview that many critics have found troubling.

This is one of those news events where I’ve felt readers really end up discussing their feelings about the case, rather than the journalism surrounding it. We all tend to impose good guy/bad guy thinking on these stories, where the truth often is that both sides bore at least some culpability in the outcome.

The one knock against this story and others like it is one I haven’t heard from readers, but I’ve thought myself: People on all sides of the issue are making some pretty big leaps in lumping too many incidents together when they really share very little in common.

The death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of a civilian has very little relationship to the question of others who have died in altercations with police officers. Those are matters of public policy and safety, while Martin’s death — while undeniably tragic — was caused by a private citizen, and really never should have become international news.

And further, the individual cases of other black people while in fights with police or under arrest are themselves disparate. I’ve argued many times that news events aren’t fiction, and there’s no such thing as symbolism or other narratives techniques there. It cheapens each of these people’s stories to weave them into an imaginary storyline, and journalists should be careful about drawing any parallels.