Media Coverage during Ferguson Unrest

On August 9, 2014, in a town called Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. TV news stations reported, “Riots continue Raging”. But Twitter roared with hashtags like #IfIWereGunnedDown and #IGotTheTalk, fighting injustice directly with social media activism. In the wake of the unrest occurring in Ferguson, one thing certainly became apparent – a new wave of information gathering is bursting at the seams. Though TV news stations, newspapers, and radios have been supplying us with information for years, the people have taken to social media to represent their own truth.

The Rise of Social Media (all information found here)

Social media has been steadily growing for decades. In 1985, American Online aired, and by 1997, the company allowed its user to chat from separate computers. In 1999, Friends Reunited, which is considered by many to be the first social media website, was created. Soon, websites like Facebook and MySpace took over the web, breaking out of the dawn of social media. By 2006, Twitter and YouTube had been launched, and so came the “holy trinity” of media: Facebook, which overpowered MySpace in 2008, YouTube, where millions of videos were viewed each day, and Twitter, the 140-character news-story platform for everyday people.

While the growth of social media had been on a steady rise since the 1980s, media had been well noticed before that. With Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1450, mass media took off. Soon came pamphlets, newspapers, novels, anything that could be printed and spread to the world. Then, as the years continued and more inventions became public, radios were installed into every home, eventually followed by the television. By the 1960s, society had been satiated with many ways to gather and process information, especially news stories.

It’s important to remember, however, that these two subjects, mass media and social media, are intricately interwoven, as social media is a mass medium. After the dot-com bubble, getting one’s news from social media sites became just as effortless, if not more, than finding news on the television or radio. As we continue to progress forward with our advancements in technology, that line of difference in news sources continues to be more and more blurred. Take, for instance, the shooting of Michael Brown.

Timeline of Events in Ferguson (source found here)

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18-year-old Michael Brown had recently graduated from high school and was to enroll in Vatterott Colleg.

August 9th– Michael Brown was shot and killed by a member of the Ferguson Police Department.

August 10th– Protests begin in the city of Ferguson, mostly led by Brown’s friends and family. By night time, anger runs high in the town, and riots begin to spark. Police officers respond by using tear gas to control the crowds. 32 civilians are injured.

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From Antonio French’s twitter page: “This woman who was helping to calm the crowd last night got shot by a rubber bullet later on. #Ferguson”.

August 11th The people of Ferguson continue to protest. This time, in addition to protesting the killing of the unarmed teenager, they also protest their unfair treatment during protesting, fed up with being shot by rubber bullets and gassed out with tear gas. The police force responds with even greater measures, sending in SWAT units and an armored vehicle.

August 12th The FBI begins to look into the shooting; investigating for any civil rights issues. President Obama gives a public announcement; giving his condolences and wishing everyone express their emotions in a healing way, rather than a harmful way.

August 13th SWAT teams are deployed into the city. Journalists gather in the protests to document and report on what’s happening via twitter and other social media sites. Two journalists, Wesley Lowery and Ryan Reilly, are arrested while charging their phones in a local McDonalds.

August 15th Ferguson Police release the name of the officer who fatally shot Brown – Darren Wilson.

August 16th Governor Nixon decrees a curfew and urges citizens to remain indoors from midnight to 5am. He states the curfew will be enforced peacefully. The night ends with seven arrests and one man in critical condition after being shot.

August 17th Details of Brown’s death are released to the public, including an official medical examination, which shows that Brown had been shot six times from the front, including one from the top of his skull. The police force worry this will cause greater unrest, and subsequently try to regulate peaceful protests happening before curfew with excessive amounts of tear gas and rubber bullets. A student working with the local radio is held at gunpoint by a police officer, who was unwilling to be recorded on camera.

August 18th Gov. Nixon calls in the National Guard in order to restore the city. The medical examiner who conducted the autopsy on Brown, Dr. Michael Baden, reports that the placement of the shots indicates that there was no sign of a struggle. He urges the city to further examine and evaluate Darren Wilson.

For weeks after, Ferguson remained in the center of news sharing on social media. Citizens continued protesting their police force, even as late as October 20th, when State Senator Jamilah Nasheed was arrested for blocking traffic. Though the coverage of Ferguson has exponentially quieted down since August, the city still runs in dismay.
Media Coverage during Ferguson Unrest

“Absurd coverage of police, Ferguson unrest and African-Americans” Fox News posted on August 19th. “Caller says she has the officer’s side of the Ferguson shooting” headlined CNN the same day. But real people, real citizens of Ferguson and their supporters, flocked to Twitter and used the hashtag #Ferguson to tell their side. While national news outlets require a careful amount of time processing what information they receive, and then even more carefully promoting it in accordance to the image they’ve created for themselves, outlets like Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube upload information and perspectives that big name news corporations could never air. However, with unmonitored usage of social media, bias is bound to occur. With opinionated tweets and Facebook posts, there will always be one-sidedness. But concerning Ferguson, it wasn’t just the messages the public was receiving, but the images and videos that made a difference.

Right Now in #Ferguson

Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman, is an excellent example of those who use social media to inform and educate. He used his Twitter and Vine accounts to show the public what was happening “Right Now in #Ferguson”. He recorded many six-second long video clips, including a video of his own arrest. He was a staple in recording and reporting, without showing much bias or opinion in the tweets themselves. Simply, “Happening Now” or “#Ferguson” was stuck on to the photos and videos. The photos and videos spread massively, many times being reinterpreted into something different each time, but French fought to keep representing the people of Ferguson. On August 12th, French posted a Vine video with the caption “Crowd is leaving. Peacefully.” His efforts are summed up excellently by a twitter reply to that same post. Twitter user DaFuturMrKc replied, “I thank you for keeping me Updated. I really want to be there with them. This is what America needed to witness.” Following this reply, the same user made another reply saying, “keep reporting even when National News won’t… Thank you.”

Hashtag Activism

Another crucial part of the activism that occurred in the midst of the Ferguson unrest was a new phenomenon many refer to as “Hashtag Activism”. Examples of this surrounding Ferguson at the time were “#IfIWereGunnedDown” and “#IGotTheTalk”. In the If I Were Gunned Down tag, many black citizens posted two photos of themselves side by side. One side would have a picture of the twitter user shown in a societally acceptable light; for instance, a picture of the user in a cap and gown or business suit. On the other side, however, would lie a picture of the same user in a less flattering light, often times smoking, drinking, or wearing baggy and “questionable” clothing. The point of this tag is to ask the public, “If I were gunned down, which picture would they use on the news?” Many black twitter users argued that it would be the more unflattering of the two, based on the recent “thuggification” of black youths in the news.ferguson3

The second tag, #IGotTheTalk, refers to the effect that the Ferguson shooting, and discrimination in general, had on black families. Many families sat down with their children after, and explained to them that law enforcement is often unfair and biased. One twitter user, Elon James White, posted on the day of the shooting, “#IGotTheTalk at age 9. My mother told me if stopped by the cops don’t even pull out my student ID because they might think I had a gun & shoot”.

Many people argue that Hashtag Activism is more like “Slacktivism”, criticizing twitter users on the fake façade of their volunteering. One tweet with one opinion won’t change the world, some may say. But is that true? While it is fair to criticize the lack of resources we send to those in needs, spreading awareness is also important. If one person with 100 followers posts a hashtag with a personal story or opinion, there’s a relatively good chance that one of their followers may be inspired by the post and subsequently create one of their own. The chain can continue, until the majority of Twitter users are familiar with the hashtags, and thus, the subjects behind them.

This, in short, is how social media is influencing our intake of news. In mass media, like newspapers or TV news stations for instance, we become informed through other people’s analysis or outlook on a situation. But, with the easily accessible availability of social media, we are allowed to see firsthand accounts and make our own firsthand opinions. As shown with the coverage of Michael Brown’s shooting, everyone has the opportunity to be a journalist today. Even if that journalism is under 140 characters.

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14 thoughts on “Media Coverage during Ferguson Unrest

  1. Another hashtag going around twitter that I’ve seen is #PantsUpDon’tLoot. It was started after a group of Wilson’s supporters put up a billboard in Ferguson with the same message. It sparked a lot of interesting dialogue in respectability politics in law and, according to one post that I had seen about it, “whether a black man has an obligation to avoid being shot.” Here’s a story from a local Missouri news outlet about the billboard: http://stlouis.cbslocal.com/2014/11/18/darren-wilson-supporters-crowdfund-pantsupdontloot-ferguson-billboard/

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  2. We were just discussing this topic the other day. I haven’t been keeping up with the incident however I know that tonight actually is when the grand jury decision is set to be be announced. Do you think that the decision will ever fully satisfy any of the parties involved and will the decision likely impact other incidences in the future?

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    1. Just like any major controversy, it can be extremely hard, if not impossible, to satisfy everyone. The grand jury certainly had a tough job at hand, for any decision would have been met with backlash. I do think the final decision is likely to impact the future, though. In my opinion, I see the decision to not indict Darren Wilson as a marker, allowing other authority figures to ensure their own safety in times of trouble like this.

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  3. It has taken quite a few months for this issue to come to some more final decisions. After there are official decisions made regarding law enforcement in the case, how long do you think it will take for the twitter activism to slow down, or even stop?

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    1. Though some (especially those close to Michael Brown and his family) may continue to live on and fight for justice for years, I realistically imagine that this specific case of twitter activism will die down when the next big news story pops up. Ferguson is a hot topic, but news is ever changing, and some equally important news story will be quick to captivate the Ferguson audience.

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  4. I think it is interesting that anyone can, like you said, become a reporter or analyst. However once the decision came down not to indict, people jumped in claiming racism and conspiracy in many instances. Although I definitely do not know what happened and I believe he should not have been killed, the eyewitness accounts changed after forensic evidence came out on the indicting side of the argument whereas the stories of many eyewitnesses and the police officer lined up and did not change while being in agreement with forensic evidence. So the decision may not be correct, but the accounts they were given only lined up in the story that the officer gave. So many of these arguments against the officer and claims of racism are important in my opinion, but need to be backed up by facts rather than strong opinion. Popular opinion on social media seems to dominate factual stories. I also feel that the racial divide in this case is very interesting to look at regardless of the outcome of the decision.

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  5. I had not read much about the Ferguson case initially, but once the jury released it’s verdict I decided to do some research. I read several of the witness testimonies and what I found was that almost all of them differed from one another. Some said that Brown was clearly surrendering when officer Wilson shot him and others said that he was going to attack and officer Wilson was defending himself. The public is getting extremely worked up when the truth it not everyone knows the facts. In an article that I read the reporter quoted the prosecutor, McCulloch, stating that the jury was there to separate fact from fiction. The jury made the best decision in regards to what the evidence said. There were many conflicting statements, but I agree with decision that the jury made. When it comes down to it the only people that know 100% of the truth are Wilson and Brown so many of the protestors, I believe, are using this case as an excuse for violence.

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  6. I think you made a good point that one Tweet, which might not exactly “change the world,” does have the power to set things in motion. Racism isn’t something that can be fixed overnight. Having said that, and despite the fact that the grand jury hasn’t charged Darren Wilson, I think the whole situation is far from over. In Egypt, they used social media to overthrow two dictators. If they can do that, I believe good things may come in the wake of Ferguson if the people truly demand change.

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  7. With all the controversy and sometimes unreliable and contradicting information being sent out, do you believe that the role that social media plays in the delivery of news is an advancement or setback for mass media as a whole? Though it allows normal citizens to live tweet or show what the national media is not willing to show, bias is extremely evident and many passionately post about and spread false information because of the belief that since they heard it once on the internet, it must be true. I do not believe that Michael Brown should have been killed, but with the uproar on social media, racism seems to be more evident as many are blaming the white population. People have seem to have forgotten that racism works both ways and the way that social media portrays Ferguson is contradictory to what everyone wants: an end to racism.

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    1. I 100% believe that the mass delivery of news is an advancement. Though, yes, many reports and stories will be biased and unreliable, social media may be the only platform for which someone can tell their story. Especially concerning the Michael Brown case, many of the protestors and supporters would never be in a position to share their story, as their opponents have a power over them, limiting their abilities. So, by sharing on twitter, even if some may be exaggerated, it allows everyone to show the story they’re seeing, and often provide the true story we need. I also have to disagree with your argument that social media surrounding Ferguson is contradictory to ending racism. In fact, I believe it’s very appropriate in ending racism. It’s nearly impossible to be racist against a race that holds the oppressive power. Yes, people may be able to discriminate and generalize the whole white population, but showing distaste for a population is not the same as being racist (in which a population will hold social, economic, and political superiority over another population). Ferguson media is trying to bridge the gap. They’re trying to fight the generalization of black youth as thugs, and trying to find justice for Michael Brown and for themselves.

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  8. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/14/al-jazeera-ferguson-tear-gas-journalists_n_5678081.html
    That’s a link to a video where the police tear gassed the Al-Jazeera American team covering the protests. How do you feel about the way reporters were treated by the police? It seems like these were all major breaches of the protection reporters have under the First Amendment.
    John Stewart also had a great piece regarding Fox News’ coverage of Ferguson:
    http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/ufqeuz/race-off

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  9. Amanda, do you think if the shooting occurred pre-Twitter, it would be as prominent as it is now? It sounds like the use of social media for the advocacy of Ferguson has become monumental, especially through users like French. Speaking of French, does he continue to relate goings-on in Ferguson, or has he laid it to rest? I know the rioting started up again with the recent court decision. Was French on the front lines again? Thank you!

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    1. I think social media was very influential in the popularity of Ferguson in the news. If this were to occur pre-Twitter, I don’t think it would have reached as many people or risen to power like it did, mostly due to the restrictiveness of other news sources. As for French, he is still very active in doing his part in updating the world. His last tweet, as of this moment, was 30 minutes ago, discussing the first Ferguson Commission: https://twitter.com/AntonioFrench/status/539833857197887489

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  10. I found it interesting when you mentioned that some people call twitter and other social media activism “slacktivism.” Any platform with millions of users sharing voices seems like an integral tool in activism in my opinion, so I’m surprised at the number of people against “hashtag activism.”

    Also, an example of hashtag activism working took place today when President Obama announced a new action aimed at “boosting accountability of local law enforcement and improving policing policies in minority communities.” Without social media fueling the protests, it’s arguable that Michael Brown would have just been another victim to police brutality. But because of the public’s reaction, actual change is taking place.

    https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/obamas-point-plan-police-post-ferguson/story?id=27287759

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