National media overkill

In August, 2014, in the United States, three men who did not know each other became part of a common tragic statistic.

They were all black. They were all unarmed. They were each shot to death by a police officer.

John Crawford of Beavercreek, Ohio, and Ezell Ford of Los Angeles remain largely unknown outside of their respective communities. The death of Michael Brown, 18, from a suburb of St. Louis, touched off national media attention that made his name and circumstances known across the country.

In the time since Brown’s death Aug. 9, national media coverage has elevated the story to the status of a one-word description, akin to those celebrities who can forgo a last name. Columbine. Newtown. Katrina. Sept. 11. They need no other keywords on Google to bring up reams of stories.

Thanks to the maximum overload attention brought by the national press, a new name has joined the list. Ferguson.

Ferguson, like these other stories, now sparks debate and discussion around the country by people who had never heard of the community until the national media provided blanket round-the-clock coverage.

“Not only is daily journalism driven by what loosely can be termed bad news, events that are extraordinary and potentially harmful. There is a perverse appeal among journalists for exceptionally bad news, for the latest big scare story,’’ said W. Joseph Campbell, a professor in the School of Communication at American University, and the author of six books on the media. He also writes a blog, Media Myth Alert, which focuses on stories about and/or by the news media that prove to be exaggerated.

An examination of national media coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Columbine, Co., present a blueprint for what the local media and community in Ferguson can expect. When a local breaking news story attracts the interest of national media, the two engage in a tug-of-war with sources and angles to determine who owns the story.

Campbell said the presence of out-of-town media injects an interesting and probably under-studied dynamic into coverage of major, developing events. “Local media can be expected to have better local sources; national media can be expected to have better national (or non-local) sources. This dynamic can lead to a tension in the coverage and to conflicting emphases in news reports,’’ he said.

Campbell spent 20 years as a journalist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Hartford Currant and Associated Press. His 2010 book, Getting it Wrong, examined coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation that hit the Gulf of Mexico in 2005.

“The non-local Katrina coverage focused largely on New Orleans, where it was thought – wrongly – that in the hurricane’s aftermath, a major American city was in the grips of apocalyptic horror and unimaginable mayhem,’’ Campbell said. “As I discussed in Getting it Wrong, that apocalyptic reporting was highly inaccurate but effectively defamed New Orleans and its people.’’

J. Brian Houston, assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Missouri and co-director of the Terrorism and Disaster Center, cites a research paper published in October in explaining why Ferguson became a media sensation.

Authors Amber E. Boydstun, assistant professor in political science, University of California, Davis; Anne Hardy, Ph.D. student in political science, University of Antwerp, Belgium, and Stefaan Walgrave, professor in political science, University of Antwerp, Belgium, titled their research “Two Faces of Media Attention: Media Storm versus Non-Storm Coverage.”

The authors define a media storm as “a sudden surge in news coverage of an item, producing high attention for a sustained period.”

Novelty, conflict, crisis and threat are all characteristics of an event that might drive media coverage, Houston said. “An African-American being killed by police in an American city {as with Ford, Garner and Crawford} will often not elicit a lot of media coverage,’’ Houston said.

But Ferguson elevated to the status of media storm when the national media’s spotlight both validated the story’s importance and influenced the events. “The protests and demonstrations that followed Michael Brown’s death were noteworthy and the police militarized response brought even more attention to these events,’’ Houston said.

“In some ways this is similar to the Civil Rights movement, in which nonviolent demonstrators elicited a violent police response, and this police response is what captured the media’s (and the nation’s) attention. In terms of school shootings, it is now the case that school shootings in which only a few students are killed or injured barely register on the national media’s radar. It is now only extremely devastating events like Newtown or the theater shooting in Aurora, Co. that results in a media storm,’’ Houston said.

The national media come to cover a local story. In turn, that begins a cycle where local residents respond to the attention of the national media, who then cover those events. “The Ferguson protestors are likely motivated by the national media attention in that media attention is necessary for any sociopolitical movement,’’ Houston said. “A movement must generate media interest, mobilize bystander publics and constrain the options of opponents to be successful, so media attention is the first cog in this process.’’

Like Campbell, Houston also says the national media can create a false impression of the community involved. St. Louis residents have expressed dismay at the national media coverage of their city, Houston said.

“And I have some sympathy for this. For example, Ferguson is a much nicer and more middle class town than what is shown in the picture that is drawn in the national media. Issues are often more complex than how they are described in the national media, and perhaps this simplification could have negative consequences for the local community,’’ he said.

Those negative consequences showed up in the hours and days after the Dec. 14, 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Twenty children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School were shot by a gunman who killed himself as police arrived to the scene.

Curtiss Clark, editor of the weekly community newspaper the Newtown Bee, has been at the paper for 40 years. His staff arrived first on the scene and provided first news of the tragedy.

Clark said he and his staff quickly realized two unexpected aspects of covering the story. One was that Bee staff members, as part of, rather than separate from, their community, were telling the stories of their friends and neighbors. The Bee joined other businesses in the community by putting a card in its window: ‘We Are Sandy Hook / We Choose Love,’ in green and white, the school’s colors.

Secondly, when overwhelmed by the media attention, community residents struggled to understand that not all media are created equal, nor is all coverage. “Sadly, there has also been persistent interest in the people of Newtown by conspiracy theorists (we call them Truthers), who assert in blogs and YouTube rants that the Sandy Hook massacre never took place, that it was a false flag operation by the government designed to foment opposition to the Second Amendment rights of gun owners,’’ Clark said.

Yet, even many of those 200 journalists who joined Clark and his eight editors and reporters in covering the story portrayed Newtown as something it was not. NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams went to the Connecticut town and called it ‘the saddest place on earth,’ a description, Clark said, that failed to acknowledge how soon after the tragedy residents began organizing to offer each other support.

Three days after what locals call 12/14, the Bee published a special edition – the first since the paper’s founding in 1877 – entirely about the tragedy. Clark’s editorial in the edition, ‘Answering For Our Town,’ won the 2013 Allan B. Rogers Editorial Award, which recognizes the best editorial written on a local subject in New England.

Clark said the editorial tried to counter the portrait of the town created by the national media. {See sidebar.} “There is a perception locally that the fascination of outside media with the Newtown community and of certain individuals who live here is a kind of invasive species, not to be fed or encouraged,’’ Clark said.

“That, we know, is a sweeping generalization, and is unfair to the many sensitive and perceptive journalists who have worked the Newtown story since 2012. But it has grown out of experiences so many people in town have had with unfamiliar reporters casually crossing the frontiers of our emotional and physical privacy in a time of high emotion, when we hardly knew what to say to ourselves let alone to the great world on the other side of the klieg lights,’’ Clark said.

Campbell said that same type of anger and frustration of national media coverage is remembered almost 20 years later with the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, which is the topic of his next book, ‘1995: The Year The Future Began’. “Local residents still remember when Connie Chung of CBS News asked whether the city’s fire department or emergency response teams were up to the challenge,’’ Campbell said.

In the case of Ferguson, attempts by the national media to cover the story in the weeks after the shooting and leading up to the grand jury report include:

*Stories that linked drunken college students in Keene, N.H., who smashed hundreds of pumpkins carved for the annual Pumpkin Fest to the protests in Ferguson over Brown’s death.

*A six-minute CNN interview aired Sept. 27 with NBA star Lebron James that uses the keywords Ferguson, domestic violence and the father he never knew to describe it. James is asked about Ferguson; in his short response he said he sometimes feels moved to speak out on events as he did with the Trayvon Martin case, but never utters a word about Ferguson.

*Stories in the two weeks after Brown’s death about how former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “remains silent” and “ignores questions” on the shooting. When she addressed the issue Aug. 28 – 19 days after the incident – CNN reported Clinton had finally commented afterweeks of silence.”

*Stories about the Georgia Democratic Party’s flyers urging African-Americans to vote Nov. 4 to prevent another Ferguson. The flyer showed two young black boys holding signs that read Don’t Shoot.

*Stories with Rev. Al Sharpton discussing “The Ferguson Effect” about holding police accountable by having citizens videotape police actions on cell phones.

*USA Today’s Page 1 story in late November about Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s preparations for the announcement by the grand jury.

Campbell called the bold headline “State of Emergency” borderline misleading. “Readers wouldn’t immediately know to what event the headline was referring,’’ he said.

Houston said the Pumpkin riot on its own did not rise to the level of a media storm. “But one of the interesting aspects of this event is the largely white Pumpkin rioters were written off as kids getting out of hand generally, where the Ferguson protestors are often framed as much more of a threat,’’ he said. “This may have something to with race, with the fact that Ferguson protestors have in mind social change while the Pumpkin rioters don’t, or with some combination thereof.’’

Houston’s University of Missouri colleague, Berkley Hudson, associate professor in the Missouri School of Journalism, echoes the thought that race plays a part in why Ferguson has attracted so much outside attention. In a 2007 article in Journalism History Hudson examines the coverage in 1934 of a black farmer who called President Franklin D. Roosevelt for help.

Hudson wrote that ‘a key aspect’ of the research considers how the mainstream press, including the New York Times, treated Harris compared to African-American newspapers.  Hudson said the role of the mainstream white press versus the African-American press in coverage of racially tinged issues needs to be considered when examining stories such as Ferguson.

Such surface level and/or inaccurate coverage by the national media become known to local media and residents experiencing such a story only when it happens to them. Otherwise, exposure just to the national stories fails to give readers any context as to how the national coverage falls in line with local reporting.

“Local media can feel overwhelmed and a bit shocked by the sudden and intensive presence of out-of-town reporters and camera crews and producers,’’ Campbell said, “who sometimes run rather roughshod over local sensibilities.’’

A couple of days after the Newtown shooting, Clark and the Bee staff received a heads-up on what would happen along those lines. Caryn Boddie, who in April, 1999, was a reporter for the weekly Columbine Courier, contacted the Bee.

“I offered to help them,’’ said Boddie, who described her job as a part-time mom reporter for the Courier. “I knew what would be involved emotionally in covering such an event in their community. One of the students at Columbine, a boy who jumped out the window (to escape), went to Sunday School at my church. Objectivity would be hard. My heart went out to them (the Bee staff).’’

Boddie had been with the Courier for a month when her editor called her at home. He told her the police scanner reported a shooting at Columbine High School, which was five minutes from her house.

She was not just the first reporter there, but for quite a while the only journalist on the scene. “I got there before the police tape was put up,’’ she said. “I ran into the north parking lot. I saw a police officer and said I’m going to follow you.’’

She stayed at the school for days on end, she said, and spent days and days covering memorials and funerals of the 12 students and one teacher who were killed, as well as providing coverage of the 21 others shot, three injured trying to escape and the two student shooters, plus the community reaction. Boddie said what she experienced traumatized her, creating gaps in her memory of some of the events.

But Boddie said she remembers what she called the mushroom cloud of national media coverage that soon descended upon the area. “There were good ones,’’ she said, “who tried to do a good job. But many of them knew that this was the big one for their careers, the one that would get them noticed.’’

A public memorial in the park drew the upper echelon of media in 1999, including Barbara Walters. Walters won one of the big scoops, interviewing the family of a boy who lost half his face when shot.

What people in the community also remember is another media’s attempt at the story. “Someone called the boy’s uncle the night he was shot and offered $10,000 for a picture of his face,’’ Boddie said.

It took about nine months before the national media left the area and moved on to other stories. They returned for the one-year anniversary and five-year anniversary, but by the 10th Boddie said the national media’s attention span had run out.

Boddie at first tried to defend her profession. Then she tried to defend herself, telling people she was a local journalist and not like the national press. A year after the shooting, she left the paper to freelance and work in communication in the Littleton area, where she still lives.

Local media in towns with a national story soon learn that while the national press rolls on to the next story, their coverage will be never-ending. In the months since Brown was shot, the national media have blitzed through Ferguson stories, ISIS, Russia’s attempt to take over Ukraine, the new Apple phone, protests in Hong Kong and Ebola. Probably much to his relief, the media’s attention shifted to Ferguson and away from Donald Sterling as well as dropping any interest in the missing Malaysian airplane.

In late October the Newtown Bee had three stories that followed up in some way the aftermath of the shooting.  In comparison, only NBC and UPI provided national media coverage in September when a playground was dedicated to Dawn Lafferty, the principal killed in the shooting.

“The national media haven’t really moved on from the story, but they do seem to have moved on from Newtown,’’ Clark said. “We were told by the Columbine people that we could expect a drop-off in the intense interest in the community after the first anniversary of the shooting. And that’s pretty much what happened.’’

For the first anniversary in December, 2013, Clark said local leaders in town made a conscious decision to keep the commemorations low-key and private. “That denied the outside media a locus within the town for anniversary coverage and spared townspeople a repeat of the media circus that encamped in Newtown in the weeks after the 2012 shootings,’’ he said.

In a multi-story package Aug. 29 on the ninth anniversary of Katrina, which killed 1,833 people, the New Orleans Times-Picayune wrote, “August 29, 2005. New Orleans will forever exist as two cities: The one that existed before that date, and the one after.”

With few exceptions, coverage of the ninth anniversary garnered notice only from local media along the Gulf. Limited national coverage included weather blogs and localized stories.

Next year, when Katrina hits its milestone 10th anniversary, coverage and rehashing of the 2005 storm should be greater. But maybe not much more, Houston said.

“The 10th anniversary will probably get more attention, but I don’t think it will rise to the level of a media storm,’’ he said. “Even the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks didn’t seem to get a huge amount of coverage. These events are no longer novel or threatening and so I think much of the media and public pay less attention to them. ‘’

Such inattention might also be good for the physical and mental well-being of readers. Two professors at the University of California, Irvine, researched the impact of watching at least six hours a day of media coverage of Sept. 11, 2001, and the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

E. Alison Holman, associate professor of nursing, and Roxane Cohen Silver, professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior, found that those who watched had more acute stress than those who were at the marathon. Acute stress symptoms increased with each additional hour spent on media coverage of the bombing.

Silver said there is also evidence that people who watch multiple media traumatic events build up ongoing health issues. Symptoms of acute stress include intrusive thoughts, feeling on edge, avoiding reminders of the event and feeling detached from it.

“Media outlets, policymakers, parents, psychologists and other health-care professionals must be sensitive to the potential negative consequences of a steady diet or sudden influx of this material,’’ the 2013 study concludes.

So is there any role for the national media in these types of stories? Can they have a positive influence?

Images & Voices of Hope, a nonprofit group that focuses on how the media can be a force for good, said stories of recovery and resilience can make a difference. IVOH calls these types of stories Restorative Narratives.

IVOH Director Mallory Jean Tenore said she is developing a Fellowship on Restorative Narratives set to launch after Dec. 1. It will examine the impact of such coverage.

“I think some people confuse Restorative Narratives with fluffy feature stories,” Tenore said.  “These narratives are deeper than that. They reveal hard truths but highlight themes of renewal, resilience and recovery, themes that are often overlooked in breaking news stories about crimes, tragedies, problems,’’ she said.

This coverage approach responds to what people want, Tenore said. “I think people have become much more open to the idea of media being a force for good,’’ she said. “I think they realize that you can be a good journalist who cares about the people and communities you cover without being a biased advocate.’’

Campbell said journalists should remember to demonstrate restraint and skepticism. “But I doubt that will necessarily happen in the coverage of major disasters,’’ he said. “Journalists covering disaster must often rely on public officials for critical details about casualties and relief efforts. But in doing so they are not expected to shed the skepticism they develop about the officials and personalities they cover. Journalism, after all, is not stenography.”

As the second anniversary of Newtown approaches, Clark sees the local coverage and national coverage taking different paths. “The Sandy Hook School massacre in Newtown has become a benchmark in the national debate over gun violence,’’ he said. “So many stories on the issue begin, ‘In the 20 months since Sandy Hook…’ What we have seen over the past year, however, is another iteration of media interest in the form of documentary producers and book authors exploring the impact of the tragedy on the community and presumably to make some sense of it or to draw some lessons from it.’’

The Bee will continue to report on the work of the dozens groups that sprung up to honor the 26 people killed that day. Events and news of these groups and the transition of the community course through Newtown day by week by month by year, he said.

“Things are happening, and keeping up with community happenings is what a local newspaper does,’’ Clark said. “So yes, in a sense, this is a story that we will always be covering. Grief, it turns out, is a most fertile medium for growth, and a growing town generates a lot of news.’’

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