In a recent article in The Week, Marc Ambinder criticizes the media’s reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. His critiques follow recent evidence from an official autopsy suggesting that Michael Brown may have been reaching for Officer Wilson’s gun during the altercation.
Ambinder suggests that previous coverage of the event supported the claims that Officer Wilson shot Michael Brown many times, even after Brown was hit and put his hands up in the air. Additionally, much coverage showed photos of heavily armed local police forces, pointing to militarization and police brutality as an issue raised by the incident. Popular news outlets including USA Today, CBS News, and many others, have done televised and written coverage of the event that supports Ambinder’s claims.
The article is not implying that Michael Brown’s death or the problem of police violence is insignificant, but he does point out the way in which the media turned the event into national news. Many of his points about the coverage align with arguments made in Cook’s book surrounding the news media’s ability to select what is newsworthy and shape audience perceptions.
Newsworthiness is the media’s ability to select which events are important enough to be covered and published. Cook says that a newsworthy story is one that “can be packaged into a narrative” (Cook, 1998). This idea of a narrative is directly reflected in the media’s coverage of the shooting, with Brown as the protagonist and the officer, and potentially the entire Ferguson police force, as the antagonist. Ambinder touches on the newsworthy elements of Ferguson that make it the perfect narrative for news media to cover. “Ferguson checked several boxes. The town was mostly black and its police department was mostly white. The basic story was black and white, too. Eyewitnesses saw officer Darren Wilson shoot his weapon, over and over, at Brown” (Ambinder, 2014). Additionally, the protests and rallies following the incident kept conflict, and the story, alive.
Not only do journalists have the power to decide what is newsworthy, they have the ability to shape audience perceptions. Cook states that “coverage can influence or even create a public mood” (Cook, 1998), and this directly applies to the situation in Ferguson. Ambinder states that the national news media published stories “based on a particular set of facts and assumptions that they then broadcast to viewers who (because we are so instinctively partisan) were inclined to reject, or accept, the fact of a bad police shooting based solely on what they were told” (Ambinder, 2014). The news media used initial assumptions about the course of events and published them across a variety of mediums and outlets, giving the public a reason to believe it was the definitive truth. Cook directly addresses this potential problem, saying “what starts out in the news as tentative hunches and extemporaneous phrases can become seemingly unquestionable fact upon being repeated from one news story to the next” (Cook, 2014). By publishing witness accounts that supported the idea that the shooting was “a homicide by the state” (Ambinder, 2014), discrediting witnesses that did not and portraying local police militarization, the news media influenced the public mood surrounding Ferguson.
The extent of police brutality against minorities extends to areas other than Ferguson, Missouri; however, the decision of the news media to report on this particular instance in a certain way, may have shaped public opinion surrounding the issue. With the leak of the autopsy report supporting claims that Michael Brown reached for Officer Wilson’s gun during the altercation, news media may have to respond to the possibility that several months of coverage might not have been entirely based on fact, and it will be interesting to see if and how they do so. Although the truth of previous Ferguson coverage may be questioned, the fact is that this event sparked policy debate about police brutality and militarization that may not otherwise have been discussed, supporting Cook’s point that journalists do have a role as political actors.
Ambinder, Marc. “Did the Media Get Ferguson Wrong?” The Week. 23 Oct. 2014. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.
Cook, Timothy E. Governing with the News: The News Media as a Political Institution. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1998. Print.