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Media’s Coverage on Ferguson Scrutinized

In-Depth report, Part 3 of 3

The media have focused much attention on the Aug. 9 shooting death of African-American Michael Brown by white Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson and its aftermath, and have come under scrutiny for their coverage.

Steven Youngblood, a professor at Park University and director of its Center for Global Peace Journalism, thinks the media’s coverage of the Ferguson incident and its aftermath has been a mixed bag, with more done wrong than right.

The center defines peace journalism as that in which editors and reporters make choices in news coverage that improve prospects for peace. This includes framing stories and choosing language in ways that promote peace and support peace initiatives and peacemakers, while adhering to the principles of responsible journalism.

“I do think that there were isolated cases of reporting that was really well done,” Youngblood told Kansas City Hispanic News. “There was an analytical piece in The Kansas City Star that really looked at the background and context of what happened and why it happened.”

Youngblood also leveled an often-repeated criticism of the media.

“I think that the media, as they tend to do, sensationalized,” he said. “I thought that the live TV coverage was especially detrimental. Someone said in their coverage, ‘It’s hard for citizens to move along with Anderson Cooper (of CNN) standing on the sidewalk.’”

Youngblood said that there was no question that the Ferguson incident and its aftermath were worthy of news coverage but that more analytical coverage was needed.

“Do we really want nonstop, live coverage on the ground that in some people’s minds gives people the 15 minutes of fame they’re seeking?” he asked. “Maybe 50 hours of live coverage instead of 100, with more analytical pieces, would’ve been a better way to go.”

In a recent guest column in The Star, Youngblood wrote that more responsible reporting would use a peace journalism framework that wouldn’t blame the victim.

“The media shouldn’t be pointing fingers, because we don’t know what happened,” he told Hispanic News. “I certainly don’t know what happened. Something else that traditional media’s always been guilty of is presenting news in a simplistic, right-and-wrong kind of way.

“Would anyone be surprised to learn, once the facts do shake out, that both parties (Brown and Wilson) contributed to this? … What a peace journalist would do is consider the possibility that both bear some responsibility. … There aren’t just two possibilities of what happened here. There may be multiple possibilities of shared guilt, and we need to explore the possibilities.”

The media also have received criticism for concentrating on the protests that in some cases led to violence and looting after Brown’s death.

“While no one would suggest that the riots and civil unrest should be ignored by journalists, one could argue that excessive media coverage of the unrest in Ferguson overshadows reporting about the reason for the unrest—Michael Brown’s killing,” Youngblood said.

He tempered his confidence that the media will do a better job.

“I do see patches of peace journalism cropping up here and there,” Youngblood said. “I think peace journalism has a better chance in the written and online media. One of the major obstacles to peace journalism is that it takes more resources to dig and provide context and assign reporters to long-term stories. And as we know, media outlets are resource-starved.”

Missouri House Rep. Kenneth Wilson (R-12th District) teaches police ethics at the Missouri Western Regional Law Enforcement Academy in St. Joseph and is a former chief of the Smithville Police Department. He said in an email to Hispanic News that he thought the media had been “a major problem” in the aftermath of Brown’s death.

“It is one thing to report incidents, and to some degree the public expects it, (but) we are a society of ambulance chasers, and everyone seems to get pleasure in seeing blood and the carnage on the street,” Wilson said. “We have a system of justice in this country that works. Our Missouri Constitution grants each of us the due process of law. … That process guarantees that everyone charged with a crime is innocent until proven guilty. … A big part of this process is a jury of your peers.”

Wilson said that he thought the media were in no way responsible for the violence that erupted after Brown’s death but that “many that joined in wanted the spotlight, and when it is live streamed in real time, the media gave them exactly what they wanted.”

“It is very discouraging to work a terrible wreck or critical incident involving the loss of life or property only to see pictures of blood, covered bodies and wreckage on the evening news.  I don’t understand why the media must report in this manner.

“I ask you, with all the media on this case that has dominated local and national news every day, if the grand jury were to issue an indictment against this officer, how is it possible that a ‘fair and impartial’ jury can be picked? In many cases that have received heavy news coverage, it is common to grant a change of venue to help this problem. In this case, I will argue that it is impossible.” 

Retired radio news reporter Dan Verbeck worked in Kansas City for 40 years, focusing on crime and courts, mostly for radio station KMBZ 980 AM and KCMO 710 AM and, most recently, KCUR 89.3 FM. Verbeck said the Ferguson incident and its aftermath “was not a simple crime story.”

“Some of the TV coverage was lacking, too simplistic,” he added. “In general, not just in Ferguson, if you don’t have a good picture or video, the story’s not going to get good placement. It’s been that way for the last 20 years, anyway.”

He said that the best media outlets can do is “give as many viewpoints as possible.”

“This isn’t just a two-sided story,” he said. “There is this great unknown as to what actually did happen between that policeman and that young man. Until that comes out, we’re left with giving a lot of different viewpoints and conjecture. I don’t think we should be in the conjecture business.”

The Missouri Press Association, at its annual convention, will host a panel of journalists and Col. Ron Replogle, Missouri State Highway Patrol superintendent, at a presentation Sept. 26 in Columbia, Mo., titled “The News from Ferguson, Missouri: What Lessons Can Be Learned?”

Doug Crews, the association’s executive director, said the panel discussion is planned in order “to have a conversation about what happened in Ferguson, but primarily (to examine) the relationship between the news media and law enforcement.”

The association also wants to hear from photographers and reporters who were in Ferguson, and from Replogle.

Scheduled panel members in addition to Replogle are: moderator Paul Stevens, former Kansas City Associated Press bureau chief; John Eligon, New York Times correspondent in Kansas City; David Carson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographer; Kenya Vaughn, St. Louis American reporter and website editor; Lawrence Bryant, St. Louis American photographer; and Jim Salter, Associated Press correspondent in St. Louis.

While the media are coming under scrutiny – some of it their own – some Kansas City-area law enforcement agencies have been examining their existing policies and procedures, and continuing with measures for community outreach and recruitment of minorities and women as they had prior to the Ferguson incident.

The Kansas City Police Department (KCPD) has had an increase in minority applicants for police officers, Sgt. Kari Thompson of the department’s media unit said in an email to Hispanic News.

“The Chief has charged all department members with the task of recruiting,” Thompson said.

Thompson provided KCPD statistics, which show that the department has 1,408 law enforcement personnel (excluding three police officer candidates). Of this number, 1,209 are men (86 percent) and 199 are women (14 percent). Of the total number of officers, 1,077 are white (76.5 percent), 164 are black (12 percent) and 63 are Hispanic (4.5 percent).

According to U.S. Census Bureau Statistics revised in July 2014, the City of Kansas City, Missouri’s population in 2010 was 59 percent white, 30 percent black and 10 percent Hispanic.

Mark Holland, mayor/CEO of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kan., spoke on Aug. 28 at City Hall about diversity in its police and fire departments.

In a statement from Holland’s office, the mayor said he’d been working with officials from the Department of Justice since early this year, and with the city’s public safety officials and community stakeholders, to create plans to increase diversity in the police and fire departments.

Statistics from KCKPD show that 72 percent of its 363-member police force is white, 12 percent black and 11 percent Hispanic. Census Bureau statistics for 2010 show that 52 percent of the Kansas City, Kan., population was white, 27 percent black and 28 percent Hispanic. KCKPD’s officer staff is 88 percent male and 12 percent female.

The Grandview Police Department (GPD) has had a variety of community-outreach and recruiting programs in place prior to the Ferguson incident, according to Master Sgt. Lorrie Whitehead. The department has 53 sworn officers, including one African-American (1.9 percent), two Hispanics (3.8 percent) , one Asian (1.9 percent) and four women (7.5 percent).

“We’ve gone to advertising (for recruitment) on social media – Facebook and Twitter – and on our website,” Whitehead said. “We send things out to all the colleges in the area for recruiting.”

GPD’s chief “is very pro-community policy,” she said. “He wants people to walk toward the badge and not away from it. … We have a ride-along program for people who are interested in law enforcement. We have a lot of contacts with local churches, and we go to a lot of their events.”

Some of those events were a June outreach presentation at New Life in Christ International Ministries in Grandview, attended by 22 young people, and Camp Kaleidoscope July and August at The View Community Center, attended by 45 young people, she said.