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 ( 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--

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