Ferguson Coverage: News or “The Narrative”

In the hours leading up to the announcement of whether or not a Ferguson police officer would face charges for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, NPR’s Cheryl Corley listed all of the possibilities facing officer Darren Wilson.

Among them, Corley said, was the possibility he could be charged with first-degree murder or murder in the second degree. She listed other potential charges, too, and then went on to list what kind of sentence Wilson might have to serve if he were convicted.

Corley’s report ran parallel to the many narratives being repeated by national reporters that began soon after that August day when Brown was killed: Wilson was at fault, and if a St. Louis County grand jury would pursue justice, he would be brought to trial for what had happened.

Journalists are supposed unbiased and blind to their own prejudices. They are required to be guided by facts. But in the case of the death of Michael Brown, it seemed as though the view of many journalists was that the police officer would have to prove he was innocent.

The national reporters following this narrative trail raised expectations that would not be realized when the grand jury rendered its conclusion that Wilson would not be indicted. The problem with the narrative was that it failed to take into account the facts of the case, and how the law authorizes a police officer to use lethal force in certain circumstances.

As the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens put it, the killing of Michael Brown gave the media an opportunity to “confirm an existing narrative, this one about trigger-happy cops, institutionalized racial disparities and the fate of young black men caught in between.

“That narrative, also conforming to pre-existing biases, overwhelmed what ought to have been the only question worth answering: Was Darren Wilson justified in shooting Brown? If the media had stuck to answering that, the damage inflicted on the rest of Ferguson—not to mention all the squalid racial hucksterism that went with it—could have been avoided.”

Some in the media relied on witnesses whose recollections would be disproven by physical evidence or the testimony that was presented to the grand jury. There was a claim that Brown had been shot in the back. There was an account, often repeated, that he was killed with his hands raised in surrender.

The known facts were that Brown had been involved in a strong-armed convenience store robbery. When Wilson later encountered him on the street, Brown fought with the police officer and reached for his gun while Wilson was seated in his car. A shot was fired. After Wilson gave chase Brown turned and was approaching Wilson when the fatal shots were fired.

The grand jurors weighed these facts and considered the law that allows a police officer to use lethal force when he or she believes an arrest is necessary because the suspect may endanger another’s life or may inflict serious physical injury. Police can also use deadly force in a case of self-defense.

In the end, after listening to some 60 witnesses, the grand jury concluded that Darren Wilson acted legally within his authority and did what many other police officers would do in the same circumstances.

In the news conference announcing the grand jury’s decision, St. Louis Country Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch recounted how so many of the original media accounts that generated so much attention were wrong. After McCulloch explained the grand jury’s decision, the assembled reporters embarrassed themselves with their line of questioning. Repeatedly they asked the same question—what was the grand jury’s vote on the issue of an indictment? Each time McCulloch explained he was not going to say. Then one reporter began a question with a polemic about the law not protecting African Americans.

Rather than carefully examining the legal case, cable TV news instead focused on those outraged by McCulloch’s announcement. As Variety put it: “What again emerged was cable’s near-addiction to conflict, which the unrest and looting that followed the announcement yielded in abundance. And while one can admire the long hours and bravery exhibited by on-the-scene reporters under trying circumstances, the nature of this sort of coverage yields such a narrow aperture their hard work produces heat, perhaps, but scant illumination.”

While President Obama spoke to the nation about the events in Ferguson, the cable networks employed a split-screen showing images of burning buildings and tear gas. There were even moments when CNN reporters were interviewing each other.

It was later reported that CNN, at the time the announcement was made, had attracted more than 6.2 million viewers. That’s more than the number who tuned in for the arrival of Hurricane Katrina or the Boston Marathon bombing.

A week after the announcement of the grand jury’s decision, Frank Absher, founder of the St. Louis Media History Foundation, appeared on CNN and criticized the national reporters for the mistakes they made in St. Louis. Absher said the reporters clearly didn’t know the territory, and that their inaccuracies eroded the public’s confidence in the news media.

“Six weeks ago, we were told that Ferguson police chief was on the verge of resigning.” Absher said. “It hasn’t happened. We were told three floors of the Ferguson hospital had been set aside for injuries from the riots. There is no Ferguson hospital. No hospitals in the area had done that.”

And there were comments made by reporters that seemed to disclose their own personal biases. For example, the New York Times’ Julie Bosman, appearing on the Diane Rehm Show the day after the announcement, said some believed that McCulloch was “insensitive” in the way he announced the grand jury’s decision. Bosman gave no explanation or support for how it was that McCulloch was insensitive.

The death of Michael Brown has focused attention on the distrust that exists between the black community and the police. It’s raised awareness of the shortage of African American officers on the mostly white Ferguson Police Department. And it has pointed to the need for police body cameras to videotape encounters between law enforcement officers and the public.

The event has lead to discussions about discrimination in housing and the lack of economic opportunities for African Americans. And it has prompted Gov. Jay Nixon to appoint a commission that will study the root causes of Michael Brown’s death.

Since the national media has moved on, the commission’s work will be explained and covered by local reporters. On Facebook, Lisa Eisenhauer, a Post-Dispatch editor, posted that long after the live trucks and celebrity anchors have pulled out, the newspaper will be telling the world what happened and why because “this is our community.”