On Aug. 9, police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed an African-American teenager, Michael Brown, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. In the aftermath have come nightly protests, often met with strong responses by the police. Christopher Benson is a former Chicago and Washington reporter, and a professor of journalism and of African American studies at the University of Illinois, where he teaches courses on diversity and the media, and media law. He also is the co-author of "Death of Innocence," about the life and death of Emmett Till, and blogs on criminal justice issues for The Chicago Reporter and on media and race for The Huffington Post. Benson spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
What do we need to keep in mind about the nature of news as we take in the stories and images from Ferguson?
We need to remember that news organizations are doing more than just giving us information. It begins with the agenda-setting role of the media. We learn what is important by what is selected for coverage, the amount of coverage and the prominence of that coverage.
But just as the media tell us what to think about, they also can tell us how to think about it. The sources that are included in reports, the images that accompany stories, even the descriptive word choices all can influence the way the public will see a particular event, individual or social group.
For example, research shows that television - which still is where most people get their news - tends to over-report crime. The result is that people wind up thinking crime is a bigger problem than it really is - even in periods when actual crime rates are down. Research also shows that there is an overrepresentation of African-Americans in connection with TV crime stories. So you can see how people not only will tend to believe that there is a serious problem with crime, but also that people of color are the source of that problem.
That brings us to the story in Ferguson. Long before many people received news about Michael Brown's shooting death, they already had preconceptions about confrontations between the police and black youth that well could have led to judgments even before all of the facts were reported. I've talked to trial lawyers who say they often find that prospective white jurors have a presumption of black guilt in confrontations with the police.
What could the media do differently?
For one thing, they need to focus more on the "why." In stories like these, there is a clash of perception. People tend to see what they want to see. Depending on how the media handle the coverage, the take-away can be a more enlightened public with respect to issues of social difference, or a public that sees difference - in this case, race - in negative and oppositional ways. We need to be mindful of context and consequence. Not as advocates for one side or the other, but as advocates for the truth.
One problem is that facts often will evolve in crisis situations, emerging episodically and often feeding preconceptions. Decisions have to be made about what to put out and when. About verifying information. Early on, for instance, we saw a lot of reliance on the official take on what had happened in the shooting death of Brown. The police reported that the cop was hit by the kid, who tried to grab the cop's gun. The first problem with that is that it was uncorroborated. It also was self-serving for the police. More media skepticism was needed. This certainly was information, but was it a fact?
The second problem is that it reinforces the notion that the black kid is the responsible person. Eyewitnesses told different stories. Obviously, everyone will have to assess credibility on all sides. But that requires that all sides are presented. Here, the story about a struggle for the gun kept getting included in early reports, sometimes even without reference to a counter narrative. In the public eye - and too often the media lens - authorities have credibility, while young African-American eyewitnesses might not.
There are similar problems in the coverage of the confrontations with police, and of looting. Again, there is a presumption of black guilt among television viewers, so there may be a tendency to see even a heavy-handed militarized police force as justified. A number of online public comments certainly indicate this.
Even while the media begin to tell us that the violence is being committed by a small minority of people, the images of much larger crowds getting gassed and shot by rubber bullets tells us something different. The tendency will be to conclude that the peaceful demonstrators - overwhelmingly people of color, who already are perceived to be at fault in such situations - that these are the people who are responsible for the violent clashes.
What's missing most in the context of many of these stories?
As important as anything else, what's missing is the perception of African-Americans, the context for understanding their reaction. Television viewers experience one reality - the one that's packaged for them - but it's set against the reality on the ground that African-Americans have experienced with the police. Interestingly, the CNN Sunday morning show "State of the Union" ran a banner that framed one segment, "When did Officer Friendly Become G.I. Joe?" Based on their experience, many African-Americans might have responded, "When did he become Officer Friendly?"
Long before the killing of Michael Brown, Ferguson was over-policed. In a majority black community of roughly 21,000 residents, there were more than 5,000 police stops last year. More than 90 percent of the people stopped were African-American. This is set against the backdrop of a power imbalance in Ferguson, where 67 percent of the local population is black and 95 percent of the police force is white.
Reporting background information like this would generate new knowledge that might help shape new public understanding of possible causes of black community protest and a sense of being harassed, their dignity stripped by "Officer Friendly." Things that apparently have been experienced for quite a while before this teenager was killed, and his body left in the street for several hours. It also might shed some light on the intensity of black demonstrations. Even the lawlessness by that small minority of looters - as deplorable as that certainly is - even that might be seen as an angry reaction to what some young people consider to be a breakdown of the law in their community by people they have reason to believe might shoot them down in the street with their hands up.