The nature of media coverage is a big part of the answer
By Charles Hallman
“What do we do now?” Such questions have been noticeably absent in media coverage in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri in August, especially after last week’s announcement of the decision not to indict the police officer who killed him. Instead, most of the focus has been on if and when violence would erupt after the grand jury decision.
“People were on pins and needles,” reported St. Louis native Ken Foxworth, who now lives in the Twin Cities but visited the area two weekends ago during the so-called “countdown” to the November 24 announcement. His family lives “less than seven minutes from Ferguson,” said his brother Maurice Foxworth.
The violence was premeditated for the most part by non-city residents, explained Maurice. “Everybody was in conclusion that he [Wilson] wasn’t going to get indicted. We [also] knew that there is an element in the community that was going to be violent — a group of young people and those outside of the region that wanted to agitate,” he pointed out.
During his weekend visit in Ferguson, Ken helped his brother and others pass out Thanksgiving turkeys and also visited several businesses in the area where the violence took place last week. The owners “were scared not knowing what was going to happen,” he reported.
“[They] wanted this to get over with so [they] can get their lives back. They [were] upset that they were in a situation that they didn’t have any control [over].” Both men found fault with last week’s violence and property damage that occurred.
“I don’t think it was the best way to go about it,” said Maurice.
“They didn’t care — those people that threw those bricks didn’t live in those neighborhoods,” added Ken. A brick was thrown through the window of Cathy’s Kitchen, owned by Cathy and Jerome Jenkins, by vandals during the unrest in Ferguson.
The focus on residents’ post-decision reactions after the grand jury declined to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown, was “a self-fulfilling prophecy,” added Rinku Sen, executive director of Race Forward, the national organization that has been tracking mainstream media coverage since the Brown killing occurred in August. “The media really set us up to look for nothing but violence,” she said during a November 25 MSR phone interview.
“Instead of looking for the feelings and solutions desired by protesters, we really ended up focusing on the few incidents of real damage to property [after the grand jury decision],” Sen said. “I do think that the expectation of violence generated a lot of the media interest in the verdict.”
Race Forward tracked nearly 1,000 print articles and cable television reports in the 10 days of media coverage following the shooting by 19 national outlets and local newspapers around the country, including the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and found that only 34 pieces included “systemically aware” or solution-oriented content. The report stated that the media coverage instead was mostly “systemically absent,” which “dismisses and/or negates the existence of systemic racism.”
The Race Forward report also pointed out that consumers “flocked” to Twitter and other social media as their primary news source.
Among the ongoing concerns that Black residents in Ferguson and St. Louis County have with local police is officers seeming to target them whenever anything occurs at any time, added Ken Foxworth. “Blacks know that if something happens, they are going to get pulled over. My brother is a lawyer, and he gets pulled over by the police.”
Maurice said that he’s also unsure that Ferguson police have changed as a result of the Michael Brown shooting. “It’s a sad commentary that you have an unarmed teenager who is pulled over for jaywalking or something else and ends up dead because you have no other strategy to use to avoid not killing a young person.”
He saw the Wilson interview on ABC last week and noted that the officer “stayed on message” and was unapologetic for what happened. “The sad part of this is not trying to have a final verdict on Officer Wilson, but we are saddened that
we don’t have a proper forum to challenge him and the other witnesses. That’s just sickening.”
Maurice also expressed disappointment in District Attorney Robert P. McCulloch’s overall handling of the Brown case. “He is the district attorney for everybody, and not just for those who voted for him,” he pointed out.
Sen wonders if the media will continue their Ferguson coverage: “Now that the verdict is out, I fear the media will decide that there is no longer a story to follow and just abandon Ferguson,” she predicts. “I have been heartened by all of the people in various sectors who have noted how much structural change is required now.”
Change is needed for any meaningful discussion to address police behavior, said Maurice Foxworth. “St. Louis is such a segregated place that everybody [typically] goes back to their segregated corners after [any discussions],” said the attorney.
His brother Ken hopes that the Brown killing will spark a political uprising in Ferguson among its Black populace, which according to the U.S. 2010 Census now makes up over 67 percent of the 21,000-plus city residents. “I think the young people need to listen and start learning” to work for political change, noted Ken. “They need to start understanding how the political system works.”
“I think the Michael Brown shooting has activated a great number of people” to work for change, said Sen. “I think that the community effort in Ferguson has been highly motivated for a long time to exercise political power. What has been missing there are the resources to help them do it.
“I think a good outcome from all of this would be to get foundations, donors, and people who want to help make racial equity happen in policing direct the needed resources to Ferguson and communities like it,” Sen continued, “small under-resourced communities that deserve a lot more support so that they can indeed build the kind of political power they deserve.”
But will the media cover “the real story of systemic change” in Ferguson? “We [Fast Forward] will definitely continue to cover and monitor the situation ourselves,” said Sen
“I have to be optimistic. I’m hopeful that we will change,” said Maurice Foxworth. “We just are trying to find ways to bring an end to a second-class [status of people who] live here.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.