The myths of Ferguson’s media coverage

If readers have the idea that Ferguson, Mo. is an angry, mostly segregated black community, they could be forgiven because that is how the community was portrayed in the New York Times and The New Republic a week after disturbances broke out. In fact, though, Ferguson is one of the most integrated places in the St. Louis area.

If people think Ferguson police shot an unarmed “gentle giant” about the go off to college, they would only have been repeating what they had heard from the media. The inconvenient accounts about Brown fighting with Officer Darren Wilson over the officer’s gun didn’t make it into many media accounts.

If viewers think MSNBC’s Chris Hayes is out with the people in the streets as he covers Ferguson, they might not realize he is set up behind an iron fence that walls him off.

If Anonymous sounds like a justice-seeking group standing up against police, people might have missed the fact that it released the names of the Florissant police instead of the Ferguson police and named the wrong officer as the shooter. idx=6&rref=homepage&module=ArrowsNav&contentCollection=Politics&action=keypress&region=FixedRight&pgtype=article

If people wonder why Officer Wilson wasn’t arrested at the scene of the shooting, it’s because many in the media haven’t explained that investigating cases of police brutality is a long and difficult process and that police have broad authority to use deadly force.

In short, the press’s coverage of the Ferguson shooting sometimes has been misleading in important ways.

That’s not to say that Ferguson is an unimportant story or that Officer Wilson did not commit a crime or that St. Louis is without racial problems or that the media has universally failed.

St. Louis is one of the most segregated cities in the United States and it never has come to grips with race. Wilson’s firing of seven or more shots may constitute a crime.  And some of the media have performed extraordinarily well.

Some coverage excellent

Especially noteworthy has been the photo staff of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which has shot incredible, poignant images, sometimes in the face of threats of physical violence. Their shots are not only moving but also of the highest quality, worthy of a Pulitzer Prize.

A veteran Post-Dispatch reporter, Kim Bell, also captured a memorable video interview of a young man justifying a night of looting that ended with the burning of the QuikTrip convenience store.

One embarrassing episode, though, was the tweet by Post-Dispatch police reporter

Christine Byers that was disowned by Post-Dispatch editor Gilbert Bailon. Byers had tweeted, “Police sources tell me more than a dozen witnesses have corroborated cop’s version of events in shooting.”

Critics jumped on the tweet of an unnamed source quoting unnamed witnesses.

Bailon issued a statement that Byers was on family medical leave and that the newspaper had not reported her tweet either online or in print. Byers then tweeted, “On FMLA from paper. Earlier tweets did not meet standards for publication.”

The local TV news stations have generally performed well, initially covering the story through the evening news and well past midnight. Their coverage wasn’t always illuminating and KSDK made a serious mistake in showing the home of Officer Wilson, a mistake for which it apologized. But overall the local TV coverage was extensive and balanced.

KSDK apology:

St. Louis Public Radio provided extensive, in-depth coverage employing its newly expanded newsroom to good effect. Kelsey

Proud has curated one of the most informative and accurate live blogs of the story and Don Marsh’s St. Louis On the Air program has delved deeply into the story. (This writer is a contributor to St. Louis Public Radio and his wife is the editor.)

Some citizen journalists, such as St. Louis been accurate and constructive. Alderman Antonio French, also provided breaking, on-the-scene tweets. French clearly has a point of view, but his information has been accurate and constructive.

Another citizen journalist who made a name for himself was Mustafa Hussein who livestreamed the confrontations with police on his independent Argus Radio. Hussein had bought video equipment to livestream concerts, but the equipment arrived just after Brown’s death and Argus became a fixture on the streets. The Washington Post reported that Hussein was threatened by police during the coverage.

Preening reporters

Still, it’s difficult as a journalist to feel proud of everything that the press has done in Ferguson.

One young St. Louis area journalist who was freelancing for Al Jazeera America, captured the sometimes exploitative nature of the mob of journalists covering the story.

Ryan Schuessler, a journalism student at the University of Missouri, wrote that he would not go back to cover the story because of the misbehavior he has seen among journalists. He wrote:

“I had been on the ground helping Al Jazeera America** cover the protests and unrest in Ferguson, Mo., since this all started last week. After what I saw last night, I will not be returning. The behavior and number of journalists there is so appalling, that I cannot in good conscience continue to be a part of the spectacle….

Things I’ve seen:

-Cameramen yelling at residents in public meetings for standing in way of their cameras…

-TV crews making small talk and laughing at the spot where Mike Brown was killed, as residents prayed, mourned…

-Another major TV network renting out a gated parking lot for their one camera, not letting people in. Safely reporting the news on the other side of a tall fence.

-Journalists making the story about them

-National news correspondents glossing over the context and depth of this story, focusing instead on the sexy images of tear gas, rubber bullets, etc ….”

Richard Weiss, a veteran journalist who was an editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and St. Louis Beacon also criticized the St. Louis Business Journal for its shallow, self-congratulatory coverage.

In a letter to the editor of the Business Journal, Weiss wrote that he was a big supporter of the publication but “was ashamed of you for the lame coverage provided on the events in Ferguson. This was made worse by the publisher’s tone deaf victory lap in her column…on behalf of what you had done….” Weiss went on to criticize “a rather bland editorial praising the United Way and the Regional Business Council for its efforts. What we are in need of from you editorial page is a clarion call, not just pats on the back,” he wrote.

Ferguson: Segregated or Integrated

The most important part of the Michael Brown story is what it says about race in St. Louis and America. Regardless of what happened between Brown and Officer Darren Wilson and regardless of whether Wilson is prosecuted, St. Louis needs to address race head-on.

Much of America’s shameful racial history played out here – the Missouri Compromise, the lynching of Elijah Lovejoy, the Dred Scott case, the East St. Louis race riots of 1917, the restrictive real estate covenants that kept blacks like the Shelley family in a small area of North St. Louis, the University of Missouri’s refusal to admit Lloyd Gaines to its law school, the Fairground swimming pool riot, the refusal of builders to sell homes to Joseph Lee Jones in North St. Louis County, the decades-long opposition of then Attorneys General John Ashcroft and Jay Nixon to the St. Louis-St. Louis County desegregation program.

Still, The New York Times didn’t have its facts straight or the overall picture in focus in its “Circle of Rage” story on the city’s racial history published two Sundays after the shooting. To suggest there is a ring of angry black communities surrounding St. Louis is greatly exaggerated.

The Times went on to say, “These days, Ferguson is like many of the suburbs around St. Louis, inner-ring towns that accommodated white flight decades ago but that are now largely black. And yet they retain a white power structure.”

Jonathan Rodden, a Stanford professor who graduated from high school in the Ferguson-Florissant community, didn’t recognize the town of the media’s depiction. He put his social science skills to work to show that the media were wrong.

“This narrative is wrong in several crucial respects,” he wrote in a blog on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage. “For starters, while St. Louis is indeed among the most segregated communities in the United States, Ferguson and some of its North County neighbors are among the most racially integrated municipalities in Missouri and well beyond.

Rodden produced maps from Census data showing that Ferguson is one of the most integrated parts of St. Louis. Aside from the corner of the town where the Canfield Green apartments are situated, “the rest of the city is, by the standards of American suburbia, striking in its level of racial integration. Ferguson and the proximate sections of Florissant and Hazelwood are composed of modest single-family houses on streets where blacks and whites live side by side.

Ferguson as “good as it gets”

“Racial segregation is declining rapidly in the United States, and North St. Louis County is ground zero. For those who see value in the preservation of sustainable multiracial neighborhoods, the low-slung middle-class suburban houses of Ferguson and Florissant might be as good as it gets in the United States.”

Rodden does not gloss over the fact that whites remain in control of the levers of power in Ferguson and other north St. Louis County communities. In fact, he points out that the situation is worse in other towns.

“Black Jack and Jennings are over 80 percent African American, with white mayors and evenly divided city councils. Hazelwood and Florissant have all-white city councils in spite of black populations of around 30 percent. Six out of seven members of the board of the overwhelmingly black Ferguson-Florissant School district are white.

Rodden’s hope is that the shooting of Michael Brown will lead to a movement to empower the black residents of integrated communities. As he puts it, “Hopefully the legacy of August 2014 will be the genesis of mobilization among a new crop of community leaders and candidates for local office in conjunction with a movement aimed at consolidating elections in order to make governments and police squads more reflective of the increasingly diverse suburban communities they serve.”

Parachute journalism

It’s not entirely fair to blast the Times, which did some good reporting on Ferguson.

Perhaps the worst example of parachute journalism was a New Republic article by Julia Ioffe entitled, “The other sides of the tracks: White St. Louis Has Some Awful Things to Say About Ferguson.”

In her probing exploration of white attitudes, Ioffe interviewed a few people at a strip mall that included a Starbucks and barbeque joint in the nearby town of Olivette.

Here is one exchange quoted by Ioffe:

“Our opinion,” said the talkative one in a group of six women in their sixties sitting outside the Starbucks, “is the media should just stay out of it because they’re riling themselves up even more.”

“The protesters like seeing themselves on TV,” her friend added.

“It’s just a small group of people making trouble,” said another …

“This is not representative of St. Louis,” said one of the older women, back at Star-

bucks. “St. Louis is a good place. And Ferguson is a very good place.”

From this in-depth conversation with “white St. Louis,” Ioffe was able to conclude:

“If anything, the people here were disdainful and, mostly, scared—of the protesters, and, implicitly, of black people.”

One would have hoped that an editor would have asked Ioffe if a conversation with a table of white residents could be taken to illustrate the views of “White St. Louis.”

Unarmed or combative

The media have been confronted with a journalistic problem from the start of the Ferguson story. How should they frame the story in a short news report. The three words that have most often been used are “unarmed black teenager.”

Those words are true, but they may not be the whole truth. From the beginning, police have said that Brown fought with Wilson over Wilson’s gun at the police cruiser and that a shot went off before Brown started to flee. Yet this detail didn’t make it into most reports.

It’s an important omission. Police are not justified in shooting an unarmed fleeing felon.  But a police officer is justified in shooting a person who is fighting over his gun.

Other accounts painting a different picture of Brown also began to emerge. The video of the convenience store robbery that preceded the confrontation with Officer Wilson punctured the “gentle giant” image.

Late in the second week of the protests, The New York Times reported more details of the police account. The Times reported that “some witnesses” supported the police account that Brown had turned back toward Wilson and moving toward him. The supporting witnesses insisted on anonymity.

Times readers complained to Readers’ Advocate Margaret Sullivan. James Dao, a deputy national editor, defended the story noting that, “In stories of this type, it’s rare and difficult to get on-the-record what investigators are learning.”

Sullivan took the side of the readers saying the story “sets up an apparently equal dichotomy between named eyewitnesses on one hand and ghosts on the other.

But Dao is right. The story presented information that made it clear that the “hands up, don’t shoot” account of Brown witnesses may not be the entire story.

The Municipal Merry-go-round

A few weeks into the Ferguson coverageboth the Times and the Washington Post provided provocative coverage on a tangentially related issue – the way in which the multitude of north St. Louis County municipalities use traffic fines to finance city government.

One of the most interesting pieces was a blog post in Washington Post by Radley Balko.  It ran to more than 14,000 words – almost a third the size of the great American novel “The Great Gatsby.”

Balko described in detail how poor, black residents got multiple traffic violations they could not pay, failed to show up in court and then were arrested on bench warrants. Those with multiple bench warrants could be carted from one municipal holdover to another, spending days in jail for nothing more than failing to pay fines.

The blog give a big boost to a report that had been issued before the Brown shooting by ArchCity Defenders, which had observed more than 60 courts in St. Louis County. The report concluded that by “disproportionately stopping, charging and fining the poor and minorities, by closing the Courts to the public, and by incarcerating people for the failure to pay fines, these policies unintentionally push the poor further into poverty.”

The New York Times’ lead Sunday editorial on Sept. 6 – “Justice in St. Louis County” – focused on this problem, citing Balko’s work at the ArchCity defenders study.{%221%22%3A%22RI%3A6%22}

The Balko blog and the Times’ editorial created a powerful momentum for change. Ferguson announced plans to pull back on the use of fines to fund municipal government. And the dean of the Saint Louis University Law School, Michael Wolff, proposed a Missouri Supreme Court rule change to make it clear that it is the “obligation of municipal courts to proportion fines to the resources of offenders.”

Nevertheless, there are serious journalistic issues with both the Balko blog and the Times editorial. The editorial stated, that the municipal policies “appear to be structured to persecute minority communities.” Actually the ArchCity Defender study had specifically said that the impact on poor communities was unintentional.

Also Balko’s piece, for all its power, was a one-sided piece of advocacy journalism. As the first commenter underneath his blog wrote:

“Lots of tremendous research here but Mr. Balko goes off into cuckoo land with some of his statements: For example, Mr. Balko refers to ‘poverty violations’ as things like “driving with a suspended license, expired plates, expired registration and a failure to provide proof of insurance”. Is he suggesting we get rid of registration & insurance requirements?

The cops can’t be faulted for citing people for things like that!”

Balko also got the Cookie Thornton story wrong. Thornton was the African-American who killed five public officials at Kirkwood City Hall in 2007 before police killed him.

Balko portrayed Thornton as a victim of the tyranny of municipal traffic violations who was made into a “community punchline” and driven insane after having collected $20,000 in fines. What Balko leaves out is that the city offered to drop all of those fines.

The real issue

The journalistic niceties may not matter if the result is an important reform of a system that had an unfair impact on the poor and black.

But it is also important that the media and community remember there is no real direct link between Michael Brown and the municipal runaround in St. Louis County.

The real issue is race as it plays out in segregated housing, racial profiling and substandard education in schools that largely remain separate and unequal.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for ProPublica, put it eloquently in an email: “I haven’t been able to shake the feeling thatthere is still a larger American story to be told out of a city and a state with such a complex history of racial and housing segregation….

Particularly, what struck me was how Michael Brown was painted as a success story for somehow managing to become one of the 20 percent of black boys who graduated from the unaccredited Normandy school system – and that this is something we would consider successful for any American child.”

St. Louis needs to have a conversation about race that leads to constructive steps to fully enfranchise African-Americans. It’s a conversation that will take more time than the media attention span.

Ironically, it is a conversation that does not depend on what happened between Brown and Wilson. The vestiges of race live on. St. Louisans must find a way to pull them out root and branch.

Note: An earlier version of this story stated that: “The inconvenient facts about Brown fighting with Officer Darren Wilson over the officer’s gun didn’t make it into many media accounts.” This version substitutes accounts for facts.  Witnesses supporting on both sides describe a struggle at police car during which the officer’s gun went off.  But Brown’s witnesses do not confirm the police and witness accounts that Brown was struggling for the gun.

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