Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson TV, Newspaper coverage produces mixed bag
Last night’s television coverage of the crisis in Ferguson was a mixed bag, occasionally offering sober commentary and context, but all too often devolving into “play by play” coverage of the unrest.

CNN and Fox had similar “play by play” coverage of what was happening on the streets. While both covered the looting, Fox showed this aspect first, and lingered longer on live shots (with commentary) of people breaking into a market and liquor store. CNN’s correspondents were plunked down in the middle of the action (so that they could be tear gassed?), while one Fox cameraman who was filming the looting had his camera destroyed. The strategy of such coverage is obviously to add to the drama of the event, to make the journalists participants in the chaos, and, ultimately, to keep viewers tuned in. How much these shenanigans really contributed to the viewers’ understanding of the situation, or to a more nuanced discussion of the issues at hand, is subject to debate.

The worst interview of the night belonged to Fox’s Sean Hannity, who called Ferguson committeewoman Patricia Bynes irresponsible for failing to more strongly denounce the violence. Bynes shot back at Hannity “is that all you’ve got” after one particularly insensitive question. To be fair, Bynes and Hannity were equally rude to one another. Far from encouraging a peaceful setting, the interview instead poured gasoline directly on the fire.

The best cable TV news moments belonged to CNN’s Anderson Cooper. In the midst of the story, Cooper calmly reminded viewers repeatedly that the unrest was confined to a small area of Ferguson. In fact, Cooper repeatedly asked his reporters their location, and their location vis-à-vis CNN’s other correspondents. His point was that Ferguson (and St. Louis) was not burning, that indeed, the unrest was not widespread, and involved hundreds, but not thousands, of protesters. This is the sort of context that is usually lacking in TV news, but is important for a more thorough understanding of the story. 
As for newspaper coverage this morning, a surprising number of front pages are serving up less inflammatory images and rhetoric. (You can peruse hundreds of front pages yourself at the Newseum’s website ).

It was encouraging to see front pages from Oakland, Tampa Bay, LA, Kansas City (pictured), Cleveland, and elsewhere shun the low hanging fruit—pictures of the burning cop car, or of shattered glass, or of armored vehicles. Instead, these newspapers took a more thoughtful approach, one that captured the sadness and disappointment of many without highlighting the anger. The best such front page belonged to the Boston Herald (pictured).

Not surprisingly, the worst front page belonged to the New York Daily News (pictured), which  demonized the protesters while simultaneously sensationalizing the unrest. Hey Daily News: Did Ferguson—all of Ferguson, as you imply-- really burn, as your sub-headline said? Naturally, the truth is different. Of course, exaggeration and sensationalism are what the Daily News, and unfortunately too many other media outlets, do best. 

It was disappointing to see the St. Louis Post Dispatch’s front page today, half of which was filled with an image of a burning cop car. 

Readers and viewers in St. Louis, New York, and everywhere else deserve thoughtful coverage that doesn’t exacerbate an already volatile situation and that gives peacemakers a more prominent voice.  

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Ferguson and media: A second chance to get it right

It’s not often that we have a second chance to “get it right.” However, the press may have that very opportunity in the wake of the upcoming Ferguson, Missouri grand jury decision.

Last August, as the shooting and subsequent unrest unfolded, the media, like a plague of locusts, descended upon Ferguson, leaving in their wake a barren field of distortions and inflammatory narratives that exacerbated an already bad situation.

In the October edition of The Peace Journalist magazine, I argued that the coverage in Ferguson was “ironically reminiscent of traditional war coverage that centers on the ‘action,’ who bombed whom, while ignoring or marginalizing the underlying causes of the conflict and on finding peace. (A) Lexis-Nexis search (of Ferguson-related stories) uncovered only two stories under ‘Ferguson, Missouri and peaceful solutions,’ zero hits for ‘Ferguson, Missouri and finding peace,’ and zero hits for ‘Ferguson, Missouri and finding peace’.”  In addition, I noted that “The coverage of (Michael) Brown typifies the media narrative of young black men as criminals and thugs, a narrative borne out by researchers (Opportunity Agenda, etc.), and illustrated by the press’ treatment of the convenience store robbery video.”

Since I wrote those words, the protests have continued in Ferguson. These protests have been peaceful, yet ignored by the media. A Lexis-Nexis news database (conducted 11-20-14) and narrowed to September and October (after the initial violence but before the grand jury hype) showed 718 stories about “Ferguson, Missouri”, and 115 stories about “Ferguson protests”—less than 1/3 of the overall coverage of Ferguson indicated in my August Lexis-Nexis search. More telling, my current search shows no hits—zero—for “Ferguson peaceful protests” or “Ferguson peace.”

If it doesn’t bleed, not only does it not lead, it’s apparently not even covered.

Of course, that situation has changed drastically as we await the grant jury decision. Faced with a second chance to cover Ferguson, the media now have the opportunity to improve on their dismal record from the first go-round.

Unfortunately, the media are not off to a good start. The Ferguson coverage this week on cable news has been nearly breathless in its speculation about the potential for violence. The same old talking heads are attempting to feed the limitless appetite of the 24-hour news beast with their same old speculation.

If violence does break out, the press must move beyond play-by-play coverage and offer more. As media expert Mallary Tenore (IVOH.org) wrote, “Move beyond breaking news coverage by helping people see the bigger picture…When we see front-page photos of tear gas being fired into the air, it’s hard not to envision Ferguson as a war zone. Stories about the tear gas and arrests are important, but it’s worth asking: To what end? At what point do we as journalists shift our focus from “what’s happening in Ferguson?” to “what’s possible in Ferguson?

“The public deserves to hear stories that paint a more accurate picture of Ferguson and that show what it can learn from other communities.” (The Peace Journalist, October, 2014).

Also, the press must be proactive, and facilitate dialogues before violence occurs by offering a platform to those who feel marginalized. Media should bring police and government officials together with community leaders and opinion makers now to foster such dialogues, which not so incidentally would make for compelling stories.

The media would also be well served to embrace many of the principles of peace journalism. These include providing contest as well as offering a more critical analysis of official statements, avoiding “us vs. them” and “black vs. white” characterizations, reporting about the invisible effects of the unrest in Ferguson, using non-inflammatory and non-sensational language, reporting counter-narratives that offer a different perspective on the protesters and the community, and reporting that gives peacemakers a more prominent voice. (The Peace Journalist, October, 2014).

As with the August unrest in Ferguson, the media are in a position to either pour gasoline on the fire or report in a more responsible way that, at minimum, does not exacerbate or inflame an already tense situation.

--Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn--

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Photo Essay: Peacebuilding Symposium at JCCC

For more information about the symposium, see previous posting below. Pictured below are Sarah Stout, Park University peace journalism student and presenter at the symposium, and Steven Youngblood, keynote speaker and director of the Center for Global Peace Journalism.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Park students shine at peacebuilding symposium
Should Joseph Kony be forgiven by Ugandans, and should Osama Bin Laden be forgiven by Americans?

These controversial questions were among those I posed during my keynote address Saturday, Nov. 1 at the symposium “Culture of Forgiveness: Peacebuilding Lessons from Uganda.” The event, held at Johnson County Community College (JCCC) in the Kansas City area, was co-sponsored by the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University.

The forgiveness questions were part of larger discussion about the media’s role in the reconciliation process. My belief, I told the 80 or so attendees, was that media in Uganda and elsewhere have a responsibility to give a voice to peacemakers, to lead discussions about difficult issues (like forgiveness), and to not inflame or exacerbate otherwise volatile situations. For most of the audience members, this was their first exposure to the principles of peace journalism, and judging by their questions, they were intrigued by the concept.

In the afternoon, the symposium featured a number of informative break-out sessions, including several that presented details about the exemplary humanitarian medical missions (via the Medical Missions Foundation) that have been undertaken by nursing students from JCCC and other area universities. 

Three Park University students participated in a breakout session titled, “Students Making Peace.” Bailey Puckett told the gathering about her thousands of hours she has spent working with newly arrived refugees from around the world at Jewish Vocational Services. Doreen Nakagiri, who is from Kampala originally, gave an informative presentation about several youth peacebuilding initiatives in Uganda. Sarah Stout talked about how peace journalism students have contributed to peacebuilding initiatives in Uganda and Cyprus, where Stout worked with local journalists last March.

After the seminar, an attendee told me, “You are really lucky to have students like these at Park.” I told him that I couldn’t agree more.