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Grading the Media on Ferguson Coverage

Now that the Ferguson protests are slowly beginning to wind down, it’s likely a good time to assess how the media handled the coverage of the recent unrest, triggered by the police shooting of unarmed teen, Michael Brown.

From the coverage I’ve seen myself, I would have to grade the media a C to C-, mainly for coverage that I thought was uneven, at best, with some national reporters even crossing journalistic lines to become advocates, rather than unbiased, objective third-parties.

And, by some standards, a grade of C, is likely too generous.

New York-based writer Donovan Ramsey wrote, in a piece for Medium.com, that “with the exception of a few bright spots, the mainstream Ferguson coverage reveals a mix of bias, laziness, thoughtlessness and sensationalism.”

His piece went on to detail, how in each case, the media simply failed to get the Ferguson story right for a variety of reasons.

Indeed, one story from Politico.com said that the Ferguson coverage had in some cases “blurred the line” between news reporting and opinion, adding that some journalists had put themselves and their own perspectives into the Ferguson story.

This point was best illustrated when CNN reporter Don Lemon offered personal assistance to the parents of Brown.

Amy Simons, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri, School of Journalism, told Politico that Lemon’s offer was “a line that was very clearly crossed.”

Further, Mediaite.com reported that an Al Jazeera contributor abandoned his Ferguson coverage declaring that the media should “all be ashamed.”

Mediaite.com detailed that the contributor, freelance journalist Ryan Schuessler, wrote on his blog—and first cited by The Daily Caller–that some media members had engaged in particularly troubling behavior such as:

  • Cameramen yelling at residents in public meetings for standing in the way of their cameras
  • Cameramen admonishing community leaders for stepping away from podium microphones to better talk to residents
  • TV crews making small talk and laughing at the spot where Michael Brown was killed while residents prayed and mourned.

Meanwhile, social media once again was a driving force in Ferguson, especially considering Twitter’s hashtag #Iftheygunnedmedown, which featured users posting starkly contrasted images of themselves, to highlight the often damaging and biased images that media often uses to portray black men.

For example, one image might be of a young black man dressed in hip-hop gear next to another photo of that same young man in his National Guard uniform.

But, while some members of the media may not have been at the forefront of objectivity in Ferguson, reporters were also thrust into a volatile, often hostile situation where they were under attack from both the police and demonstrators as well.

In fact, a story from Vox.com, wondered: “If police in Ferguson treat journalists like this, imagine how they treat residents.”

The story, like many others, chronicled how reporters were being randomly arrested without charge, tear-gassed and intimidated by assault rifle-carrying officers.

High-profile arrests of reporters in Ferguson included Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post; The Washington Post‘s Wesley Lowery and Ryan Devereaux, a reporter for The Intercept.

Moreover, many of the arrests may have contributed to perceptions that some reporters had crossed the line in Ferguson and actually become part of the story.

Sandy Davidson, a professor of communications and media law at the University of Missouri, told Politico, “When you have a photographer who is overcome with tear gas and then, of course, you have other journalists from CNN, who are there to record it, journalists are getting swept up in it, and journalists are a part of the story, I do believe, in part because it’s a story of journalists feeling unduly restricted to report on a matter of very public interest.”

Davidson compared Ferguson’s coverage to the ongoing conflict in Gaza, referring to it as a “war scene.”

In the final analysis, while some saw Ferguson’s coverage as excessive and others saw the media blurring the lines between reporting and advocacy, Ferguson is and will continue to be an important story worthy of media scrutiny.

First and foremost, the media helped expose a deep, racial divides and simmering tensions in Ferguson between the police and the residents they are paid to protect and serve.

Second is that Ferguson coverage has shined a spotlight on the troubling and increasing phenomenon we now know as police militarization, whereby local police forces across the nation were sent surplus military hardware from assault rifles and Humvees to tanks, thanks to a then little-known federal program.

In the wake of Ferguson, stories about police militarization have popped-up in nearly every major metropolitan area in the country.

And, that’s one of journalism’s most important jobs, to be a watchdog and to hold the government accountable and uncover injustice, wherever it happens to live.

What do you think of the media’s coverage in Ferguson? Tell us in the comments or tweet us @10000Words.

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