former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Social Media Led the Way, Now Mainstream News Must Keep the Spotlight on Ferguson

In Blog on August 18, 2014 at 9:00 am

Guest post by my daughter, Valerie Wexler

Hands up. Don’t shoot. We all know that powerful refrain now. A community echoing what were possibly Michael Brown’s last words before being shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

We know the chant now, but yet again it took the mainstream media a while to understand the full implications of a story that social media was on top of for days.

On August 9th and 10th I watched as news of yet another shooting of an unarmed black kid played out on Twitter. I posted this powerful piece by Roxane Gay, but even as I did I knew many people were still not paying attention. To those in the media or constantly on Twitter it seems like the world has become oversaturated with news, but many people outside that bubble still depend on mainstream media.

It was the arrests of the Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan J. Reilly on August 13th that finally propelled Ferguson into the spotlight. However even then the mainstream media was behind. Information from Ferguson came almost entirely in the form of tweets. During the night of the arrests, it appeared that the only news crews broadcasting from the area were a local station and one livestream (Al Jazeera America attempted to continue coverage but reporters were teargassed). In fact it’s quite likely that Lowery and Reilly would have stayed in jail overnight if their colleagues and followers hadn’t immediately noticed that they had stopped tweeting.

Though it appears to have been covered briefly, cable news did not stay with the story that night even as events continued to worsen, and many of those of us watching on social media seemed to be wondering the same thing, is anyone else seeing this?

The answer was too often, No, or only after the fact. The journalists who have been on the ground have done great work in conditions that at times closely resemble a war zone. Wesley Lowery’s account of his arrest was harrowing and he has clearly tried to continue reporting and not let himself become too much of the story. But too often the mainstream media- reporting the next day, after the police officers dressed in military gear with rifles pointed at a peaceful crowd had mostly dispersed- got it wrong.

Roxane Gay wrote in another piece, this one for the Guardian:

The mainstream media is trying to report on this travesty, and all too often, they are failing. There is a preoccupation with the actions of a few, with the salacious discussions of looting and a people run amok over the plight of the many living in an occupied community.

The media has too often portrayed what is going on in Ferguson as a violent clash of equals, instead of an incredibly disproportionate response to predominantly peaceful protests. A CNN chyron on August 14th proclaimed “Violent Protests Rage In Missouri,” while a USA Today headline read “Police Seek Order As Ferguson Furor Builds.” Not to mention the asinine reactions of Mike Allen and Joe Scarborough.

The news media’s coverage of Ferguson is especially important because the actions of law enforcement have been so egregious they are almost unbelievable. It is easy to see how someone not following events as closely might think the protests were more violent than they really were; we want to believe that the officials sworn to protect us would never act like this. It also is easy for the media to get manipulated by the police, such as the release of a video of Brown’s alleged theft of cigars at a convenience store. No one disputes that Brown was unarmed when he was shot. And eye witnesses say that Brown offered no resistance.

This is when media coverage counts the most. Now that the mainstream media is catching up and Ferguson has become a “true media circus” it is up to the networks and national newspapers to listen to their reporters on the ground, to report honestly, to not let the story fade away or get diverted. And to remember what started this news event in the first place. The death of an unarmed black kid named Mike Brown.

An Update: This post was written before the events of Sunday night. The continued escalation by the police (including throwing teargas into crowds that included children), the release of an autopsy report, and the calling of the National Guard, only shows that thorough and factual journalism is all the more necessary. And David Carr also noted the role of social media in Ferguson, writing “nothing much good was happening in Ferguson until it became a hashtag.”

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