Perceived lack of credibility didn’t stop African-Americans from following Ferguson news

Newsrooms in this country have known for nearly half a century that coverage of African-American communities needs fixing. In 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission, argued that newsrooms should provide more inclusive reporting on racial issues in response to a summer of nationwide inner-city social disorder the summer before. Last year, the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson provided ample opportunity to see whether the news media had improved its newsgathering sensitivity. According to many observers, it came up short.

In a dozen in-depth interviews I conducted for research at the University of Texas-Austin, African-American respondents said that Ferguson news coverage in the wake of the shooting once again did nothing to improve credibility or build better relationships with diverse communities.

“In society, trust is not given at the drop of a hat,” a 34-year-old a real estate developer in Chicago told the paper’s author. “So how could media assume a single media performance during a single news event is strong enough to significantly affect trust? The Michael Brown story didn’t affect the way I felt, feel, or will feel about the media.”

This response should serve as a crucial and, to be sure, urgent warning to journalists. Researchers have shown that trust in the media can lead to more time spent following the news. And the more someone follows the news, the more likely one will be engaged in the democratic process. So if African Americans don’t trust the news, they might be further disenfranchised from the democratic process, the consequences of which impact the health of a plural social experience.

During this research, respondents suggested ways for the news media to improve credibility.

1. Stick to the truth. Most interviewees suggested that the news media could build better trust by avoiding reports of unconfirmed rumors and innuendo.

2. Further diversify newsrooms. The news media should hire more African-American journalists, especially to cover predominantly African-American communities.

3. Offer diversity training. A 39-year-old Ferguson racial justice worker explained that covering different social groups is not intuitive. Reporters need to be educated on the nuances found in varying communities. This, she said, will teach reporters to “ask the questions in an empathetic and culturally sensitive way.”

4. Offer more positive stories. The news media too often reside in places of tragedy and disruption. Those stories must be covered to an extent, but room should be made for a richer tapestry of story themes. “The little moments, however sad, inspiring, basic, triumphant, regretful or nostalgic, hit home to humans,” a Chicago accountant said. “Of New York, and of the U.S., and of the world. It’s the basic thing that connects us all, and I think highlighting that could help bridge some gaps.”

5. Don’t obsess over race. One of the more unexpected responses from interviewees was the suggestion that race can also be a distraction to responsible news coverage. A St. Louis graduate student said the news media fumbled a bigger story in Ferguson, one of abusive and unreasonable force by police officers. “The major issue should have been that an officer gunned down an unarmed man in the streets. Race aside, this should be the larger issue. Was it just, and how can we prevent it from happening? Do we need to reevaluate our system of law enforcement?”

The study’s participants also gave suggestions on how the news media could improve relationships between press and community.

1. Focus on people—not stories. During major news events, reporters can tend to sacrifice basic moments of humanity in service to scoops. A Ferguson resident said, “Acknowledge and speak to the people in the community. In African-American communities, we say ‘hi’ to each other, we make eye contact and acknowledge one another. There were several times when I saw the media ignore and look away from the people looking at them. Sometimes they looked terrified and afraid.”

2. Advocate for communities. While many news observers have said that advocacy is not the typical role of mainstream news media outlets, some respondents said it should be. “You want to improve this broken relationship?” a Texas pharmacy representative asked. “Then defend more, exploit less. Allow people to see there is more to African-American life than [crime, drugs, and gangs]. Quit showing us in a negative light.”

3. Remember the Youth. The news media has a responsibility to explain how news events might affect the youth as well as adults. How, for instance, would the Ferguson story change classroom environments? How were young people responding to or participating in the social demonstrations?

4. It’s the Little Things. At least one respondent suggested that news reporters could participate in additional productive ways. “Bring water, or food, or something to show that you are part of the community and that you care,” one study participant said.

Respondents in this study said they wanted more out of the news. Of course, whether the news media take their advice remains to be seen. But even though the news media’s coverage didn’t help build credibility during the Michael Brown coverage, the good news is that African-American respondents still followed the news and will continue to do so going forward. They felt a sense of civic and social responsibility, they said. It stands to reason, then, that any efforts to improve media trust and build better relationships in their communities can—and must—go a long way in reporting people of color in more responsible and productive ways.

In fact, while interviewees said that the news media in Ferguson might not have always been outwardly empathetic to the African-American community’s plight, at least one Ferguson respondent was empathetic about the work those reporters were doing. “They’re kind of brave and courageous for being in some of these stories that they go in,” one interviewee said. “And me myself? I wouldn’t do it.”

Author’s note: Shane M. Graber, a doctoral student of journalism at the University of Texas-Austin, authored the research from which this article is taken. The paper, “Defend More, Exploit Less: African Americans on Media Trust and News Use After Ferguson,” was presented at the 2015 AEJMC conference in San Francisco.


Four Pinocchios for ‘Hands Up;’ Time to own up, editor says

A month after Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, CNN broadcast what looked like a blockbuster “exclusive.” It was a videotape of two white construction workers who said Brown had his hands up when killed.  One worker even gestures with his hands up.

CNN’s analysts called it a “game changer” and its legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said the witnesses had described “a cold-blooded murder.”


But instead of a game changer or evidence of a crime, the contractors turned out to be two of a score of unreliable witnesses and the clearest example of how the media helped create the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” myth.


The story began in St. Louis where KTVI had interviewed one of the workers and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the other.  The Post-Dispatch reported that the men’s accounts matched accounts from neighborhood residents about Brown raising his hands.



At MSNBC, Chris Hayes carried a long report and Lawrence O’Donnell followed up. Vox had a story as did the Washington Post. Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept included an account of the workers in its summary of evidence against Wilson entitled, “Down Outright Murder.”




But it all turned out to be wrong.  The video was not taken in “the final moments of the shooting,” as CNN reported.  Nor were the accounts of the contractors credible.

In fact, the telltale proof that the workers hadn’t seen what they claimed was contained in KTVI’s first interview with the men before any of the sensational coverage.  One of the men told KTVI that three officers were at the scene when only Wilson was there. That was the tipoff error that convinced the Justice Department the men hadn’t seen what they claimed.

In recent weeks, there have been a few mea culpas on the “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” mantra.

The Washington Post’s opinion writer, Jonathan Capehart, admitted  it was “built on a lie.”  The Post’s fact-checker gave it a four Pinocchios rating for untruthfulness.  New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan recanted an earlier column criticizing the Times reporters for quoting unnamed sources who had corroborated Wilson’s account of self-defense.




Not everyone is willing to give up on Hands Up. The Post quoted one skeptic, Saint Louis University law school professor Justin Hansford, who retained Hands Up as his Facebook photo. Hansford said, “I don’t feel any way that I was somehow duped or tricked or that my picture was based on a lie. I think it is a very symbolic gesture that really speaks to the experiences of a lot of us, a lot of youth of color.”

A separate Justice Department report released the same day as the investigation of Wilson, provided plenty of proof that Ferguson police and municipal courts engaged in racist and unconstitutional practices targeting African-Americans.  As Attorney General Eric Holder said, this may have made the community more willing to believe the rumors and false accounts circulated about the death of Michael Brown.

At week’s end, St. Louis Public Radio editor Margaret Wolf Freivogel said in a column that it was time for the press to reappraise not only why it had gotten Hands Up wrong, but also why it had failed to report in the past about the racist and unconstitutional police and municipal court practices  in Ferguson.


“We journalists hold others accountable for their shortcomings,” she wrote. “But in the months since Michael Brown was shot, we’ve had trouble owning up to our own.”


Publisher’s note: William H. Freivogel is a contributor to St. Louis Public Radio where his wife, Margaret, is the editor.

Post-Dispatch wins Scripps Howard award for Ferguson coverage

The Scripps Howard Foundation has awarded its first place national breaking news award for 2014 to the staff of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for coverage of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the chaotic events that followed.

“A news organization is never tested more thoroughly than when a major story breaks in its backyard,” the contest judges said. “The Post-Dispatch was tested by a story that was fluid, emotional, important and not easily told with clarity and balance. It passed this test with textbook execution.”

The Cincinnati-based foundation announced the awards and finalists Tuesday. The contest entries were reviewed by industry experts who studied them during two days of judging at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Post-Dispatch entries for editorial writing and photojournalism, both focusing on Ferguson events, were finalists in the Scripps Howard competition. They were: “Lessons from Ferguson,” editorials by Tony Messenger and Kevin Horrigan and a portfolio of photos by Robert Cohen.

Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed black man, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer on Aug. 9 following an altercation on a city street. A St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Wilson last November, and a Justice Department report released earlier this month concluded that Wilson had been justified in shooting.

The circumstances surrounding Brown’s death and the grand jury’s decision led to months of protest, sporadic violence and property destruction. News organizations from throughout the country converged on what quickly became a national story. The incident prompted an examination of police practices, racial disparities in law enforcement employment and injustice in the operations of municipal courts.

The judges who reviewed the breaking stories for the Scripps Howard contest said the Post-Dispatch editors recognized the implications of the story from the first minute they learned of the shooting. “Using every resource at its disposal, the Post-Dispatch began reporting the story and telling it, first on social media and by morning in print,” the judges said. “Its reporters and photographers stayed on the streets, with apparent inexhaustible commitment. And its editors and layout team pulled together the results in vivid and compelling packages on day one, day two and beyond.”

The newspaper’s reporting staff was sometimes exposed to physical violence in carrying out their assignments. Once about 20 people picketed the Post-Dispatch claiming it was biased against protestors. The newspaper scored news beats in its coverage such as the official autopsy of Michael Brown and surveillance video of Darren Wilson leaving the Ferguson police station after the shooting.

The award carries with it a trophy and $10,000. The other finalists in the breaking news category included the Everett, (Wash.) Daily Herald for its coverage of a mudslide that crushed a rural neighborhood killing 43 people, and the CBS Evening News’ reporting from Cuba following the surprise announcement of re-established relations with the United States.

The Scripps Howard Foundation, established in 1953, is the charitable arm of E.W. Scripps Company, which owns television stations and other media outlets throughout the country. Recipients of the journalism awards will be honored in Denver on May 21.


Twitter explodes with invective, partisan comment after Ferguson shootings

Twitter provided the earliest reports of the shooting of two police officers in Ferguson this week. It also provided the forum for invective, hate and partisan reaction.

President Barack Obama used Twitter to condemn the shootings and conservative critics condemned Obama for relegating his response to Twitter.


Fox commentators blamed Attorney General Eric Holder’s report last week on unconstitutional police practices in Ferguson for creating the atmosphere in which the officers were shot. On Fox, Jeff Roorda, the head of the St. Louis police union said the resignation of Ferguson Chief Tom Jackson wasn’t enough for protesters, commenting, “They didn’t get what they wanted when Tom stepped down. They got it late last night when they finally, successfully shot two police officers.”


Protest leaders and the Brown family condemned the violence in press conferences and on Twitter.  But social media critics of the Ferguson police filled Twitter with invective about the police shootings being just in light of the death of Michael Brown.


Meanwhile the Twitter handle for police supporters #bluelivesmatter was trending.