On the morning that the funeral was held for Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year old whose shooting death by a Ferguson, Mo. police officer sparked a domestic crisis, the New York Times decided to run a profile that informed readers Brown was many things, including “no angel.”
The backlash was vast and immediate.
“A large number of American teenagers live exactly like Michael Brown. Very few of them are shot in the head and left to bake on the pavement,” wrote The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates.
For what it’s worth, the journalists responsible for the piece have since offered statements explaining the choice of words. Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ public editor called it a “regrettable mistake.” The article’s author, John Eligon, also expressed regret saying, “Hindsight is 20/20. I wish I would have changed that.”
To many, however, mainstream media’s failings in Ferguson are more than just a few poorly-chosen words. With the exception of a few bright spots, the mainstream Ferguson coverage reveals a mix of bias, laziness, thoughtlessness and sensationalism. From paltry coverage and over-reliance on police reports to a self-referential focus on the plight of journalists in on the ground, media outlets have proven themselves unable to get the story right — and readers and viewers are taking note.
Of course, it was citizen journalists — bystanders to the incident— who broke the news of Brown’s killing to the rest of the country via social media. Within moments, their accounts of what happened in Ferguson spread through the Twittersphere with the hashtags #Ferguson and #MikeBrown. In fact, on the very day Brown was killed, those hashtags were used about 120,000 times each.
And it was social media again that called national attention to some of the bias in early reporting around Michael Brown’s death with the #IfTheyGunnedMeDownhashtag. Twitter users shared contrasting images of themselves and asked the question, “If they gunned me down, which images would they use” to highlight the sometimes damaging choices that journalists make in selecting photos of shooting victims like Brown. Huffington Post blogger Nick Wing followed up quickly with a examples of headlines that treated “white suspects and killers better than black victims.”
Meanwhile, an analysis by Pew Research Center found that it wasn’t until two days after Brown’s killing that the cable networks devoted any airtime to covering it — or the growing crisis in Ferguson — with a total of 27 minutes from FOX (6), MSNBC (21) and CNN (0) combined.
When CNN did finally pick up their coverage, much of it was regrettable. One anchor suggested using “water cannons” on protesters, unintentionally evoking imagery of the hoses used on protesters during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and other coverage forwarded narratives based on, seemingly, no more than speculation and hearsay or police reports.
It was this kind of reporting that upset rapper Talib Kweli, an issue he raised to anchor Don Lemon live on the air. He pointed out an article on CNN’s site that characterized one night of protests as “calm until the bottles fly.”
“That’s not what happened,” Kweli, who was on hand for the protests, told Lemon in a segment that erupted into a full-blown argument.
So what news sources can be relied upon if mainstream, traditional media is asleep at the wheel? Folks like Tim Pool of Vice News and St. Louis Alderman Antonio French have helped to fill the void, live video streaming and tweeting the events in Ferguson and giving a real-time, firsthand accounts of the situation on the ground.
Pool’s nightly streams of the protests garnered between 70,000 and 230,000 viewers. And, since he first began tweeting about Mike Brown’s death, French has become a trusted source for news in Ferguson. His number of followers on Twitter has grown from 4,179 to 121,291 with French sending up to 200 tweets on some days.
As the uprising in Ferguson has quieted down, mainstream media has a chance to get Mike Brown and the city’s story right. If there’s any justice in the world, a grand jury will move to indict officer Darren Wilson, who killed Brown. Wilson have his day in court and, hopefully, the media will cover it with measure, thoughtfulness and respect for all parties. If not, it’s clear that there are citizen journalists and smaller, more nimble outlets ready to do the work.