Media in Ferguson: Lighting the fire or fanning the flames?

A man runs away from the burning storage facility after the announcement of the grand jury decision Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. A grand jury has decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed, black 18-year-old whose fatal shooting sparked sometimes violent protests. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

America went to sleep last night watching the images from Ferguson, with riots following a grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown.

Tuesday morning, people woke up, and the images, emotion, and pain were still there.

And along with it came an interesting new question: who is to blame? More specifically, what role did the media have in all of it?

Those questions came up as soon as prosecutor Bob McCulloch stepped to the podium to announce the grand jury’s decision Monday night.

“On August 9th Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson. Within minutes, various accounts of the incident began appearing on social media, accounts filled with speculation and little, if any, solid, accurate information.”

Later, he continued:

“The most significant challenge encountered in this investigation has been the 24-hour news cycle and its insatiable appetite for something, for anything, to talk about, following closely behind with the nonstop rumors on social media.”

On Facebook and Twitter this morning, I saw similar sentiment, insinuating that the media had pushed the situation in Ferguson too far, or that the media had created a powder keg waiting to erupt with the grand jury’s decision, then continued to fan the flames.

So did they? That’s a heavy question to answer.

To paraphrase Edward R. Murrow, they didn’t create this situation, but some exploited it.

In the hours leading up to the announcement, reporters were on the ground in Ferguson. Their main topic: being on the ground in Ferguson. A decision had not been reached yet and riots had not broken out, but reporters were still expected to go live every few minutes, desperately trying to fill air time. “What’s the feeling on the streets?” anchors asked.

It’s important to be there, but it’s more important to actually provide some relevant information.

The lead-up to the announcement was bad enough, but those same bad traits carried over when the grand jury announcement was made. Reporters thrust themselves into the mobs, choking through smoke and teargas, to give us the latest of the riots in Ferguson. But there was another problem: they weren’t exactly saying anything. There were rumors of shots fired, there were camera shots of burning trash cans, and there were reporters pointing down to discarded bottles of liquor. But there was no context or actual information. Where was the crucial information about the decision? Where were the transcripts of witness testimony while the riots took place?

As Slate’s Josh Voorhees pointed out, the details from the grand jury were not analyzed. There were no interviews with community leaders. And there was no context to help viewers understand where everything was happening until Anderson Cooper finally informed viewers that the riots were only taking place in a small part of Ferguson.

If it bleeds, it leads. And Ferguson was bleeding last night, so cable TV networks hit the riot coverage hard.

Anchors wearing gas masks and being hit with rocks became more important than giving people the details of the grand jury decision. Closeups of looting by people wearing Guy Fawkes masks were the focal point, rather than the information from police reports. Reporters’ remarks about “the smell of marijuana” were prioritized over the witness and officer testimony, or an understanding of the grand jury process. Shots of protesters confronting police in the streets as fires burned in the background were the main event.

TV news did not create the tension in Ferguson – riots were bound to happen regardless if there were cameras there. The people blaming the media, or the spread of information on social media, are misguided, and are missing the much larger point about race and police violence in America.

But the media is missing that larger point, too, and that’s what makes the media’s coverage Monday night all the more disappointing.

TV news had the chance to use their medium as a tool for understanding and education amid chaos. Coverage of the Arab Spring in 2011 showed images of violence, but also gave information about why it was happening. Both aspects are critically important in covering a volatile situation in order to keep viewers informed. But those graphic, powerful images, without context as to why they are powerful, makes them meaningless. In Ferguson on Monday night, TV chose to point their cameras at the fire, instead of the match.


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