On Monday night, CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360°’s “Breaking News” segment on the Ferguson protests led with audio from a woman who called into a talk radio show. She identified herself as just Josie, then she told radio listeners Officer Darren Wilson’s side of the story about how he wound up shooting Michael Brown.
Anderson Cooper’s show played the two-and-a-half minute clip, where Josie went into details of the incident, complete with her reenactment of dialogue of Brown taunting Wilson. She described how Brown “was on something” and “bum rushed” Wilson, causing him to fire shots in self defense. A banner anchored the bottom of the screen and read “Radio Caller: Brown ‘Bum-Rushed’ Officer,” with a photo slideshow of both men and of the scene after the shooting.
Josie acknowledged that this version of the incident—Wilson’s version of the story—contradicts what bystanders had shared with the media. She intoned those bystanders with scare quotes calling them “quote-unquote witnesses.” But who was Josie and where did she hear this? “[Wilson’s] significant other told me,” she said. “It was Sunday night before the riots, so you know it was when it was still on Facebook. Everyone was still talking, it was kind of an open discussion at that point.”
Although Cooper emphasized that “Josie’s” account had lined up with what Wilson had told investigators, his show’s report didn’t sit right with me. Is this what mainstream news organizations do: give prime airtime to an unconfirmed source who read about a second-hand account on Facebook about a shooting to which there are actual, verified witnesses?
While this is just a single segment on Cooper’s show, it illustrates a broader issue of how mainstream media makers decide to represent people in these narratives that they’ve constructed. Reporting is storytelling, where journalists can shape and build characters, motives, and story arcs with the wording they choose for headlines to who gets more airtime to tell their side of the story.
The idea that news media is objective is inherently false, of course; this notion that reporters are not influenced by their background and personal experiences when they put together stories ignores real analysis how and why certain perspectives are considered legitimate and others are tossed in editors’ wastebaskets.
When Cooper opened his show with a story about a practically anonymous person retelling the shooting of Michael Brown in a way that portrays him as a criminal, on drugs, and assaulting Wilson, it presents that perspective as on par with the accounts of witnesses actually at the scene. Right off the bat, the show suggests that viewers consider the idea that Brown brought his death upon himself and that the eyewitnesses who saw the incident are lying. It doesn’t seem to be an issue that this information came from some random person who called into a radio show.
From the beginning, social justice advocates have been critical of the way some mainstream news outlets have handled this story: during the first nights of protests where St. Louis County officers shot tear gas into crowds of protesters, the only real documentation of the situation came from Twitter feeds. It took the arrest of two journalists to bring in coverage from mainstream news outlets. Then, media ran with the initial photos police handpicked that showed Brown flashing what some interpreted as a gang sign, eventually leading to the “If They Gunned Me Down” meme. On Alternet, Steven Rosenfield listed seven ways that people have tried to represent Michael Brown as a villain in discussions of Ferguson: for example, before releasing the name of the officer who shot Brown, the police released a video of Brown stealing cigarettes from a convenience store. In doing so, they were clearly trying to shape the narrative that Brown was a bad kid, someone unworthy of sympathy.
When they finally showed up to Ferguson during the latest rounds of protests, the portrayal of the events contrasted sharply from outlet to outlet: a USA Today headline read “Looting, tear gas shatter period of calm in Ferguson,” while a story on the Black Voices section of the Huffington Post from the same night read, “Ferguson Protesters Guard Stores From Looters.”
Say what you will about right-wing news outlets like Fox News but at least we know their agenda. On The O’Reilly’s Factor’s segment entitled “The Truth About Ferguson,” Bill O’Reilly laid out the bare facts of the case, making sure to point out that Wilson had a good record up until the shooting. Following that, he immediately showed the convenience store footage of Brown shoving a clerk and black and white security video of looters breaking into a store. Their slant towards news delivery instills and reaffirms racist fears of their viewers, and their greatest misrepresentation is in presenting themselves as having “fair and balanced” reporting.
The issue is when a news organization presents itself as an unbiased party in how they communicate the news. It’s disingenuous for mainstream news to frame this story as if they had no motives, as if they weren’t creating a narrative pieced together from grainy surveillance camera footage, stories of looting, and an unknown voice on a radio show. There are newsrooms full of producers, editors, and reporters who are deciding on which photos to show of protesters in Ferguson, what their headlines will look like, whose story they will tell. They are deciding what questions to ask: “When will they finally charge Wilson and look into appropriate training for police departments?” versus “Did Michael Brown shoplift?”
There are those who are closely following the events of Ferguson as they unfold through social media like Twitter, where they can learn of real-time first-hand accounts of the protests and unrest. However, the overwhelming majority of people rely on mainstream news outlets as their primary source to keep updated on the case, and those organizations seldom do the work to include and highlight marginalized voices (unless, the person is a celebrity). That’s the reason why the story that mainstream media tells about this incident matters: it can reinforce institutionalized racism that permeates our culture and policies that create situations where black folks are dehumanized and police brutality is acceptable.
Related Reading: Who Thinks Race is Not a Big Deal in Ferguson? Mostly White People.
Amy Lam is Bitch's associate editor. She tweets at @AmyAdoyzie.