Study finds unusual coverage patterns found in Ferguson stories

The shooting death last year of Michael Brown and the subsequent events that followed his death in the Ferguson unrest – protests, vigils, riots, outrage – left the public shocked, longing for answers from both sides of the debate that ensued. Brown’s death sparked renewed national attention to police brutality and the relationship between law enforcement and minorities in the United States. Narratives such as “Hands up, don’t shoot” and “Black lives matter” became prominent in social media conversations, and led to continuous collective action online and offline. But the voices actually heard in the mainstream media coverage of subsequent events may surprise readers, as will their actual contributions to press content.

This study, part of the University of Texas at Austin’s program to engage undergraduates in research, analyzed sourcing and framing practices in the Ferguson coverage of local and national newspapers during the first cycle of protests (Aug. 8 through Sept. 8). The authors examined all articles from the the New York Times, USA TODAY, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, looking for sources as well as patterns of phrases and themes.

This study found journalists emphasized specific context-less episodes, treated social movements critically and used non-official sources who did not share the protestors’ agenda.

Serving as the researchers’ guide were previous studies on the “protest paradigm,” a set of coverage patterns in stories of unrest and crisis that routinely devalue and delegitimize social movements by drawing more attention to the negativity of rioting and confrontation, and giving less attention to the demands and grievances of protestors.  This model stems from standard journalist news values and routines, more specifically their reliance on official sources. Primarily using official sources helps journalists maintain the appearance of objectivity and reduce the need for added, more verified reporting. As a result, information crucial for evaluating a social problem, such as views from those actively advocating its solution, may go unreported. Additionally, a lack of discrepancy and debate about official reports and government information, particularly among official sources, makes the press less able to counter official views.

This study shows that the five newspapers allowed non-official sources – mostly non-elected individuals/spokespersons and local Ferguson residents – to be heard, although journalists often included official sources as well. Overall, sources neither challenged the protest model nor provided context to counter the episodic, or daily, nature of the coverage. In fact, non-official sources were more likely to contribute to or comment about singular events and happenings rather than contributing to thematic or issue-oriented articles that went deeper into the overall implications of Brown’s death and its relation to contributing factors, such as race, poverty or the history of police brutality.

More than one-third of the coverage emphasized rioting and unrest, while a similar proportion of articles emphasized police-protestor confrontation, police arrests and portrayed protestors as combatants. Eight percent of coverage specifically referenced, positively, grievances and demands of advocates from a non-official perspective. This limited presentation of advocates’ demands was accompanied consistently by additional mention of rioting or confrontation. For example, one article from the Washington Post described the double bind caused by police ticketing and poverty in the Ferguson community with a citizen’s first-hand account: “It begins with getting a traffic ticket. You get pulled over and get this huge ticket. In some parts of the city, tickets actually double. Get a couple of those and soon most people can’t afford their bills.” Unfortunately, this hidden thematic gem appeared in an article highlighting both the “rage” and unrest of protestors.

Themes emphasizing someone’s social deviance prevailed more in Post-Dispatch content than in national outlets. Many such instances likely can be explained by journalistic norms. Local journalists logically work with and are closer to local official sources on a daily basis. In this instance, truly critical coverage may have higher stakes socially and professionally. Local reporters make their living through these sources more so than do non-local writers.

While journalists may allow more non-official sources during event-driven news, questions remain about how journalists use these sources to criticize the official point of view. Findings of this study suggest that although journalists reach out to non-official sources to aid their reporting, journalists’ adherence to longstanding, officially sanctioned problematic models remains: Coverage continues to minimalize the positions of reformist groups and its case-by-case, singular presentation persists. This helps explain why the Department of Justice’s damning report of Ferguson police becomes news – even when, in fact, it’s the norm. Why and how did journalists fail to recognize the pattern of police misbehavior?

Such evidence raises more questions than answers: Could this situation arise because highly positioned, accessible official sources help direct and dictate what non-official sources reporters use? Do other journalistic practices create sourcing practices? Did coverage change after the Justice report, once official sources granted their seal of approval of the protestors’ grievances? More research clearly would be helpful. For St. Louis reporters, the important question may be: What can you do to be less of a slave to your rigid coverage routines? Or, even when giving voice to the voiceless, why does your content decidedly favor those in power? Is objectivity all it’s cracked up to be?

Authors’ note: Danielle Kilgo and Rachel Mourao are journalism doctoral students at the University of Texas-Austin, and Dr. George Sylvie is an Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. The paper, “Michael Brown as a News Icon: Event-driven news and its impact on protest paradigm” was presented at the 2015 AEJMC conference in San Francisco.