Media must tell what happens — and why — in Ferguson

There were two things I saw in the media coverage of Ferguson, Mo., recently in the ramp up to the grand jury decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the August shooting death of 18 year-old Michael Brown.

Two illustrations from different times and places, expressed with different intent, but, for me, carrying the same message: We are missing the story.

Ferguson is not just the story about last summer’s tragic shooting death of Brown — unarmed, hands up, according to some witnesses, who apparently were not credited by the grand jury. It is not just the story of the ugly images of a militarized police force pushing back protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas. It is not just about a process many people believed took way too long to decide whether a crime was committed.

The story of this St. Louis suburb is the story of power. It is power that is enforced at street level by the police and up throughout a justice system that has been engaged in the mass incarceration of people of color. It is a political system that powers the criminal justice system in this process. It is a social system that defines people, identifies them in ways that will justify their place in society — high or low, included or marginalized.

In that process, we often come to see each other, to know each other — as good or bad — through media representations. Our reality, then, is a mediated reality. And the media portrayal of African-Americans by television — where most people get their news — has been in the negative context of crime and poverty. The mediated reality is way out of proportion to the actual reality. And the public takeaway too often is that black is bad.

These points are driven home by my two illustrations. First, as I Googled “Ferguson” this past week — with anxious headlines declaring a state of emergency in Missouri and the call-up of the National Guard in anticipation of angry public reaction to a grand jury decision — I saw a photograph on the Los Angeles Times website. The focal point was a blond-haired white woman in a group of protesters. Her sign read “Thug Protestor” and had arrows pointing to herself. I was struck by that photo, and the irony wrapped in irony.

The irony she intended is based on our recognition that she obviously is not a thug, as some people have called the protesters based on the nightly images of confrontation played out on television in connection with Ferguson.

The woman’s point is that we shouldn’t assume that protesters are thugs. After all, she is a protester and, of course, she does not look like a thug. She looks like the All-American Girl. But, in recognizing that irony, we get twisted in the embedded irony. We have to know what a thug looks like in order to know that she is not one. A thug in TV representation is a person of color — black or brown.

So, in trying to deconstruct the social construct of black as bad, she wound up reinforcing it. The second illustration is a confrontation on NBC’s “Meet the Press” between former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson, during which Giuliani, a former U.S. attorney, engaged in reductive reasoning. “The white police officers wouldn’t be there if you weren’t killing each other 70-75 percent of the time,” Giuliani said. So, in other words, it’s your fault — black people everywhere — that your kids might get shot down in the street by police. Look at how bad things are in the African-American communities.

So what is media’s role in this?

We tell people what is important to think about and we even tell them how to think about it. We set public agenda based on what we cover, we frame the stories and we represent people within that frame. Because of this agenda-setting process, people walk away thinking crime is a bigger problem than it really is. Because people of color are more likely to be seen in mug shots than are whites — far more than the numbers would justify — people like the woman in the L.A. Times photo come to see crime in blackface. Sadly, people like Giuliani — people in positions to make a positive difference — can paint by statistical numbers without getting the full picture.

The story we are missing in this process, though, is the one that provides the full context for the story we are being told — the meaning of it all. The full picture. Sure, we get the facts. We get the who, what, where and when of it all. But not the why. The why is the context.

It starts with why there is such a wide gap in black and white opinion on the case, whether Darren Wilson should have been indicted for a crime. Why do some people accept police action while others distrust it? At bottom, why are some people angry and others afraid?

Ferguson is presented as a confrontation story. The problem with that frame is that it ultimately directs our gaze away from the underlying story, which is to say, the actual story.

Even more, that very framing can determine public opinion. In a story of confrontation between people you have come to associate with wrongdoing and the police you believe are tied to law and order, the demonstrators are going to lose in the battle for public approval. We need to know why young black people see themselves as victims of prosecutorial discretion and the police as an oppressive force in the process. We need to know why they have come to believe there is a breakdown of the law in their community by people who shoot them down in the street — hands up.

We also need to know why other people see things so differently. Television is a big part of the why. It emphasizes the visual. The immediate. The impact. The confrontation between the police and demonstrators in Ferguson will “make for good TV,” President Obama said in calling for peace following the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson. Good TV. But is it good journalism?

Not without balance, it isn’t. Not without providing some deeper understanding of the meaning behind the images, the story behind the story. Otherwise, the real confrontation is a clash of perception. A racial Rorschach.

People tend to see what they want to see, what they have been conditioned to see. We have to help them see what is. To see and to understand.

That is the media responsibility—to provide the information we need to make enlightened choices about policy, about consumption, about our social interaction. We can’t get there — enlightened decision-making — without understanding the meaning of it all. The context. The why.

In the many stories that have been told since last summer’s confrontations, we have learned more as the result of follow-up reporting. However, even the background stories we are getting, like the ones about the overpolicing of a majority black community by an overwhelmingly white police force, only provide part of the ultimate truth.

Even when the media begin to tell us the more nuanced stories and try to clarify that violence during the demonstrations is being committed by only a small minority of people — people who are taking advantage of the demonstration as cover — the TV images of much larger crowds and explosive confrontations tell us something different.

The tendency among many people in the viewing audience will be to conclude that the demonstrators — overwhelmingly people of color, who already are perceived to be at fault when it comes to issues of wrongdoing — are the people who are responsible when things go terribly wrong. Even when the confrontations are provoked by police. Research shows that the mere display of a gun by one person can cause the other person to be more aggressive.

So the challenge of the media is to cut through all this and to do it with careful decisions about what goes in the frame of the story and what is left out. To do it with decisions about how to balance breaking news with more background, more interpretation, more perspectives in follow-up stories.

While we want to think we are balanced in our reporting, we must consider whether we really achieve that goal. Do you really see the world in a balanced way through a gas mask, or when you are constrained by a bulletproof vest? Is your judgment guided by a sense of journalistic responsibility or a sense of threat? The answer to that question only raises another obvious one and that is, threat by whom? The police? Or the people the police are confronting? What is the perspective you get on such a confrontation from behind police barricades, in a press pen, subject to feeds by the official sources?

Without question, reporting the who, what, where and when of it all from the frontlines is tough. But if we don’t get at the “why” through more thoughtful enterprising stories, all the rest of it has no meaning and no impact in helping people move away from biases to make more reasoned choices.

If we don’t try to do that, then the question we ultimately should be asking is, “Why not?”

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