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.  

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