Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Ferguson, Missouri, is really a story of inappropriate reactions

The death of a black teenager at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the events before and after the shooting, have raised many questions: about race relations, about the behavior of police, about the militarization of local and state police forces, and whether and to what extent the self-serving and often-biased behavior of the national media makes things worse.

The most important thing about this episode is that no one really knows what happened, except the 18 year-old male, who is now dead, and the police officer who shot him.

Maybe the black residents of Ferguson are correct in their belief that the police officer murdered an innocent black teen.

If the police officer did indeed kill the boy without justification, or used excessive force, he should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Several times this column has pointed out examples of unjustified and stupid use of force by law enforcement officials at all levels. Police must be held to account when they break the law, or injure innocent people, just like the rest of us.

But perhaps other information that shows the young black male as something other than the “gentle giant” he has been portrayed to be is correct. And if so, that also has to be taken into account.

In such emotional situations as this one, people’s initial reactions are usually based upon their existing attitudes about those involved. Perhaps they believe white police officers are biased against black residents. Or, perhaps they believe the worst of the black people involved. And, the stronger the emotions involved, the stronger the reaction to the situation is likely to be.

That seems to be precisely what happened.

The majority black population in Ferguson immediately believed the white policeman murdered the black youth, while others believed the worst about the black youngster and thought the police officer was justified in shooting him. Black residents demonstrated and protested, leading to police responses that mostly made things worse.

There are pieces of information floating around to support both the black youth and the white policeman, but what is lacking is being able to know which of all of these various pieces of information are credible and which are not. Investigating crimes frequently takes time, and first impressions about what happened are often wrong.

If they are devoted to objectively and accurately reporting events, news organizations can help settle initial emotional reactions. But if other considerations take precedence, the way news outlets handle events can stir things up further.

One issue is that of proportionality: as serious as this situation is in Ferguson, Missouri, one must ask the question of whether in the universe of important events this situation truly justifies the hundreds of hours of breathless, up-front coverage given to it by the dominant news outlets?

The Media Research Center (MRC) is a 501(c)(3) media watchdog organization, which is one of several organizations that looks and reports on the performance of the national media. Brent Bozell, MRC’s founder and president, comments: “You’ve got a hundred blacks [that] have been shot by white cops. What happened to the other 99? Why don’t they merit coverage?” And then, “You’ve got 5,000 blacks killed by blacks. Why isn’t that news?”

Both are fair questions, and important questions.

In cases such as the Ferguson shooting death, Mr. Bozell rightly says that “this is where the media, more than ever, need to be disinterested, neutral observers.”

There’s enough tragedy in this story to go around. The parents, relatives and friends of the young black man whose life is now over obviously have a tragedy to cope with. But so do the relatives, friends and co-workers of the white policeman.

If we analyze how the national broadcast and online media, and major daily newspapers operate, it is evident that news organizations often glom onto a story based not just on the news value of the story itself, but whether the story fits in with certain of the dominant media’s favored narratives. A story about a white cop shooting a young black male has greater media appeal than a story about white man killing another white man, or a black man killing another black man.

Further, too often it is a matter of who is first with something, not who gets it right. The online and cable/broadcast outlets have to furnish 24 hours of content a day, and if you ain’t first, you ain’t in the game. So any little tidbit of new information becomes a headline, or “Breaking News.” And it is not unusual for these “urgent” items to be relatively unimportant, or may be either iffy or flat out wrong.

Quite a lot of the accounts we have seen, heard and read in the news are incomplete, contain unverified elements, and sometimes are biased. The media may eventually report the unvarnished truth, or not, but the chaos that occurs in the interim stirs emotions on all sides, and obfuscates the truth, which is precisely opposite to the responsibility the news media have to serve the public.

Good journalism demands more, much more, than this.

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