Through the Fires of Ferguson

An Analysis of Reporting in the wake of the Ferguson, Missouri Riots

While the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson policeman and the trial that followed are stories fit for lengthy analysis, the unrest in Ferguson following the grand jury’s decision to not indict the officer is a story of its own. On August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, a confrontation between 18-year-old black male Michael Brown and police officer Darren Wilson resulted in the shooting of Brown. Controversy was immediate, as many questioned Wilson’s use of force. On November 24, 2014, the grand jury released their decision to not indict Wilson. The simmering tension in Ferguson exploded that night. Dozens of buildings were burnt to the ground. Cars were destroyed. Gunfire rippled through the night air. Throughout the night, reporters on the scene and in the studio tried to make sense of the madness.

The unrest in Ferguson is undeniably tied to an issue of race and the news coverage of the events rightly acknowledged this. In handling such a controversial and heated event, however, many news reports failed to portray the racial unrest in Ferguson with uncompromised journalistic integrity. The three pieces that I will examine are one from the Chicago Tribune, which makes the racial implications of the story more important than the details of the event; a video from The Big Picture, which understates the destructiveness of the protests; and a report from the Washington Times that chooses to omit any mention of race from their piece.

The Chicago Tribune’s Race-Driven Report

As with most of the reports about the Michael Brown shooting or the response in Ferguson, The Chicago Tribune’s piece following the grand jury verdict has a heavy focus on race. The immediate and blatant focus on the race issue in their piece, however, is worth noting. In the lead of the article, the Tribune refers to the event as “a night of violent and racially charged rioting.” This is not a falsehood, but by injecting the story with a racial overtone before laying out the details of the event the Tribune builds their frame before telling the story. The racially charged nature of the riots in Ferguson may already be apparent, but by making it the lead of the story it places the image of black vs. white in the reader’s head immediately.

According to Walter Lippmann in his piece “The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads”, public opinion “must be organized for the press if they are to be sound, not by the press as is the case today.” With this view in mind, the Tribune would have retained more journalistic merit if they were to lay out the facts of the story and allow the reader to recognize the racial aspect on their own. Later the grand jury is referred to as consisting of “nine whites and three blacks” — a fact, of course, but one that jumps out at the reader because of the already established white vs. black frame of the piece. The article includes a quote from St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, who says, “I didn’t see a lot of peaceful protests out there…unfortunately this spun out of control.” From there the logical step would be to report if there were in fact any peaceful protests, but the article chooses not to do so. If there is any bias in the piece it comes from the Tribune’s omission of that detail, and their use of language that depicts the event as utter chaos.

Please watch from 2:50 until the end of the video.

The Big Think’s Misguided Focus on Peaceful Protests

On the other side of the coin is this piece of reporting from The Big Picture, featuring a reporter that was on the ground covering the protests. In the videos’ final three minutes, the studio anchor asks the reporter about the number of peaceful protests, adding, “In the media it all seems like it’s just riot porn.” The on-the-ground reporter goes on to make the claim that the “majority” of protests he encountered were peaceful. Aside from making a statement that is potentially inaccurate, the reporter demonstrates a strong use of agenda setting. His overall message is that yes, there was looting and chaos and destruction, but that the peaceful protests should garner just as much attention. If one were to only view this video and nothing else about the Ferguson riots, they would have an extremely different understanding of the events than if they were to only read the Tribune piece. Jay Rosen’s theory of the “view from nowhere” states that complete objectivity is difficult to achieve no matter how many organizations claim to have it. This clip demonstrates that the organization is certainly not operating from a “view from nowhere” — quite literally, the “somewhere” is the Ferguson streets. But their view is not an overarching shot that shows the entirety of the story, but rather a magnifying glass that chooses to examine the peaceful protests. By saying things like “the majority of protests were peaceful” and referring to the destructive unrest as “pockets of frustration”, the reporter is underselling racially charged chaos, even moreso than the Tribune may have been overselling it. While journalism that incites more conflict is worthy of criticism, journalism such as this piece from The Big Picture that chooses to downplay the grave nature of an event should be criticized as well.

The Big Picture is a decisively left-wing program and their downplaying of the chaos in Ferguson may be considered an example of bias. With so many conservative outlets pointing out the senselessness of the chaos in Ferguson, The Big Picture may have been attempting to paint a less destructive picture of the events. Dr. Max McCombs defines agenda setting as “the ability to influence the salience of topics on the public agenda.” There is no more accurate description of what The Big Picture is doing in this piece than that one. They are overstating the significance of the peaceful protesting so as to make it appear as if it was more present than the destruction, when no factual evidence is given to make that true.

The Washington Post’s Attempt at “The View From Nowhere”

This final piece is from the Washington Times and it acts as a polar opposite of the way the Chicago Tribune handled the racial aspect of the event. Its lead, unlike the Tribune’s does not mention race: “Rioting broke out in Ferguson Monday night following the announcement that Officer Darren Wilson would face no charges in the August shooting of Michael Brown.” The surprising part of the piece is that even after the lead, the race of the victim, the officer or the rioters involved is never mentioned.

The piece begins with a focus on the grand jury decision that states that there was no probable cause to bring charges against Wilson. From there it is a fairly well-reported breakdown of the response of the protestors and the subsequent police reaction. While the Tribune’s report mainly focuses on the protestors’ actions, a large part of the Times’ piece is concerned with the tear gas that was used by the police. A woman that claims the tear gas gave a young girl a heart attack is quoted. There are references to CNN reporters who struggle to remain unaffected by the strong gas. The Times deserves credit for making it clear that it was more than the actions of the protestors that made Ferguson a dangerous place that night.

The omission of any mention of race is an attempt at objectivity, of leaving the subtext for the reader unlike the Chicago Tribune’s piece. However, the Times fails to uphold perfect journalistic integrity because race is part of the story. The lead may not have been the place for it to be so strongly mentioned, but the racial conflict of the case is very important to reach an understanding of why this event took place. In Jay Rosen’s piece on “the view from nowhere” he does champion objectivity, but he also says that real journalistic authority comes from “illimunating a murky situation.” By choosing not to mention race at all, the Times failed to do this.

An Impossible Line to Walk

My critiques of these three news stories are not meant to discredit them as pieces of journalism. If anything, the flaws in these three pieces demonstrate just how difficult it is to report on an event with so many moving pieces and implications. Of the three, The Big Think’s piece is the most problematic given its puzzling claim that the protests were mostly peaceful. The Chicago Tribune and The Washington Times differ in their inclusion of the racial implications of the event, the former injecting it into many details and the latter ignoring it completely. What we can learn from these pieces, and all reporting done in times of American unrest, is that everything is framed a certain way. One event — in this case, the riots in Ferguson — can be covered in an infinite number of ways.