In light of the discussion around the grand jury decision in Ferguson, I thought Sarah Sobieraj’s piece on reporting conventions would provide some interesting perspectives on media coverage of Ferguson.

Sobieraj argues that activist groups seek media coverage to get their messages to the public, and these groups will attempt to be as professional, quotable, and credible as possible in order to be seen as “media friendly.” These standards align well with the rules that usually journalists follow. However, journalists use a different set of rules to determine what activism is newsworthy.

I argue that the media coverage of Ferguson and Michael Brown’s case supports Sobieraj’s research that activist groups routinely don’t get covered for the issues they are trying to present. Sobieraj argues that this lack of coverage is detrimental because the media is an outlet where marginalized people can “promote understanding, inclusion, or change” to the larger public. When activist groups receive coverage that doesn’t speak to their issues the media treats the activists and issues as a “spectacle,” Sobieraj argues, rather than “legitimate political actors,” (Sobieraj, 509).

Sobieraj does note that activists are taken seriously when their actions and activities disturb or threaten order, involve heated conflict between police and protestors, or involve conflict between two different demonstrations. Sobieraj quotes a journalist, who sums up the issue well. “If people riot, we’ll pay attention. We wanna know why they’re so damn upset,” (Sobieraj, 510). Ironically, very few mainstream media outlets have posted stories that answer that question in relation to Ferguson.

From August until November media coverage usually focused on looting, protests, and arrests in the community after the shooting of Michael Brown. Especially on the night of the indictment announcement, the media updated their feeds continuously with new pictures documenting the streets of Ferguson and other major cities where there were large scale protests, arrests, military or police presence, or general violence. Since yesterday, the NY Times has tweeted 87 times (at the time of this posting) about Ferguson, and only one of those tweets mentioned “racism,” as a possible underlying issue in Ferguson. Other news outlet Ferguson tweet highlights are below.

nytimes ferguson 1

usatoday ferguson 1

washingtonpost ferguson 1

nytimes ferguson 2

Sobieraj suggests that a combination of event characteristics (size, disruption, police involvement) and a journalist’s assessment of the newsworthiness of a story in the frame of professional expectations may influence coverage (Sobieraj, 511). It is easy to visit Ferguson and attend the protests as many reporters did, focusing on the way the protestors acted – lying down on the ground, holding their hands up for “hands up, don’t shoot!” protests, or looting stores – instead of interviewing protestors to see why they were lying on the ground, or holding their hands up. In this sense, why the protestors acted the way they did was deemed less newsworthy over a larger, louder, or more fiery protest.

Sobieraj notes that an activist group or demonstration may also lack the authentic, natural appearance that appeals to journalists. Inauthenticity in a demonstration means the event feels planned, forced, or doesn’t conform to the journalist’s idea of what the demonstration should be. This might be an explanation for Ferguson, but given the sensitive and emotional nature of the grand jury decision and Michael Brown’s case, I don’t agree that a lack of coverage stemmed from protestors being inauthentic. In the days following the death of Brown, the media consistently questioned Brown’s mother, grandmother, friends, and eyewitnesses who each gave an emotional, grieving account. These stories would undoubtedly pass as authentic stories behind the protests for Brown. After the grand jury decision, the sentiment was less sadness and more anger which still resonated as authentic, especially as demonstrations in cities other than Ferguson began.

nyc protests ferguson
Thousands protested in NYC Monday night following the indictment announcement in Ferguson.

I found the idea of public and private narratives in activist authenticity to be interesting. Sobieraj found that some groups choose to mobilize around personal narratives in order to increase engagement, but that most tended to keep “big picture” issues at the forefront. I would like to see more research on this topic of personal narratives and engagement. Several social media campaigns surrounding Ferguson have attempted this type of outreach, such as the “#BlackLivesMatter,” “#HandsUpDontShoot,” and “IfTheyGunnedMeDown” with varying success. I wonder if the Ferguson activists conducted successful outreach in this manner, if perception of the protests would change.

The last point of analysis into coverage of activism in Sobieraj’s research is into the political acceptability of the activism and demonstrations. Sobieraj argues that journalists prefer activist groups to “tackle one issue at a time and present ‘plausible’ solutions to ‘reasonable’ concerns,” (Sobieraj, 521). Coverage may speak too generally about issues and create the impression that the group is disorganized, further failing the groups’ objective of meaningful media coverage. This may contribute to the coverage of Ferguson, especially in relation to anticipation of a clearer message or plausible solution by opposition.

In the case of Ferguson, the prominent opposition movement is the support of Officer Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown. This movement focused on supporting Officer Wilson and the Ferguson police force, which was a very clear, easily understood message. Unfortunately, the movement with Brown’s death is associated with complicated social issues, such as racism, police brutality, and justice. These “big picture” issues may be hard for journalists to convey to readers and consequentially, journalists and media outlets may decide not to cover that side of the Ferguson protests.

A possible issue with analyzing Sobieraj’s research in terms of Ferguson is that Sobieraj looks only at movements surrounding presidential campaigns. This is important because she argues that these campaigns are a high point of civic engagement. For my argument, the potential effects are likely negligible, given the size and fervor behind the Ferguson movement, regardless of a presidential campaign as a focus point for civic engagement. The widespread and longevity of this movement indicates that there is no need for a presidential campaign to foster engagement.

In future research, I would like to see the role that social media has to play in media coverage of activist events. Especially in Ferguson, as Prosecutor McCullough kindly pointed out for us, social media and traditional media don’t operate independently as a news source. Many traditional media articles use social media sources for Ferguson when journalists were denied entry or arrested earlier in the investigation. The role of social media coverage would be interesting to examine in future activism movements.

The case of Ferguson media coverage has the potential to address a wide variety of concerns and problems from racism to police brutality to body cameras, but coverage has tended to focus on the events surrounding protests instead. Through her research, Sobieraj concluded that many activist groups and demonstrations abide by the standard explicit rules of newsworthiness, but these rules vary from what journalists use to determine authenticity and newsworthiness for activism. The activism surrounding Ferguson may have too many big picture issues, or journalists may just be focused on the events rather than the reasons behind the protests. Regardless, it is hard to deny that there is a surprising lack of mainstream media coverage on the issues behind the Brown protests in Ferguson.

1. Sobieraj, Sarah. “Reporting Conventions: Journalists, Activists, and the Thorny Struggle for Political Visibility.” Society for Study of Social Problems 57.4 (2010): 505-28. Print.


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