Dear Media: How Not to Screw Up the Next Ferguson

Dear Media: How Not to Screw Up the Next Ferguson

In Ferguson, reporters were falling all over themselves to be social justice warriors (to coin a phrase) who would strike a blow against racism and an unjust system. When they cast themselves in this role, they became partisans who were no longer able to admit facts that run contrary to the partisan narrative. I know it’s a lot less glamorous to give up on being a crusader for social justice and just be a guy who reports the facts. But if you’re in the media, that’s your job.

I hate to say, “I told you so.” No, really, I hate it. The city of Ferguson, Missouri, is in flames yet again as angry mobs—largely composed of outside agitators—vent their rage against “the system” after a grand jury refused to indict a white police officer for shooting a young black man. All of that destruction could have been prevented if the media knew its own business and didn’t need constant reminders from people like me about how to report on the use of deadly force.

Specifically, I warned them about Zimmerman Amnesia, the dogged failure to learn from the media’s mistakes in reporting previous cases.

[H]ere we go making all of the same mistakes we made in the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case, where reporters did their usual bang-up job of writing the story first and then gathering the facts—only to see much of the early narrative about the shooting dissolve before the case even reached trial. Everyone was shocked when a supposedly open-and-shut case ended with an acquittal, even though it was clear that many of the details were ambiguous and left room for reasonable doubt. Which made that case little different from hundreds of others involving the use of deadly force….

We ought to know from past experience how horribly inaccurate early reports about violent incidents can be. We ought to know how much can be distorted, misrepresented, and misunderstood by seemingly official or sympathetic sources on all sides, how long it can take for accurate information to come out, and how equivocal the results can be, with the evidence so evenly balanced as to convince partisans on both sides that they are right. But when every new politically charged shooting comes along, we forget what we should have learned, and there we all go, back to making confident pronouncements about who we think did what, who is the villain, and what is the remedy.

That’s exactly what happened. The early reports were very clear that Michael Brown was a good, kind-hearted young man bound for college, that the shooting was totally unprovoked, that he was shot multiple times in the back, that he was executed in cold blood. Then the evidence, as it emerged, knocked down each of these claims one by one.

Cases involving the use of force tend to be messy, and getting at the facts is difficult. It requires a lot of sorting of competing claims, cross-examination and confrontation of witnesses, and a thorough review of the physical evidence, which often refutes the eyewitness testimony.

In my initial reaction to this case, I only got one thing wrong. I assumed it would eventually go to trial. Instead, the case collapsed so completely under scrutiny that it never even produced an indictment. Yet what I found interesting about prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s statement is that he emphasized how thorough the grand jury’s deliberations were, how he gave them access to all the evidence, how they questioned witnesses, how they were not influenced by press reports, how they deliberated over the case for a long time. This is not the usual purpose of a grand jury. A grand jury is not there to sift through all of the evidence and try the whole case. They’re just there to make sure that there is some evidence, enough to indicate that there is probably a valid case, which can then be allowed to go to trial.

The mainstream media has already convinced millions of people that they just know Darren Wilson is guilty and that the whole justice system is racist and corrupt for refusing to throw him in jail for the rest of his life.

But McCulloch clearly implies that he conducted this grand jury hearing as if it were a full trial. This indicates to me that he knew the case against Darren Wilson was very weak and probably wouldn’t make it past the grand jury, and he knew that this would infuriate those who had already convicted Wilson in the court of public opinion. So he made sure that the case did go to trial in its own way. He used the grand jury to create a very thorough record of all the evidence, the kind of record that would emerge from a full trial, and which can now be released to the public.

But much of the damage is already done. The venal, incompetent mainstream media has already convinced millions of people that they just know Darren Wilson is guilty and that the whole justice system is racist and corrupt for refusing to throw him in jail for the rest of his life.

If the media want to do a better job next time—and that’s a big “if”—I can offer them five basic rules that they ought to have followed in this case. A lot of small business owners along Florissant Street in Ferguson would be better off if they had.

1. It’s not a story until there are facts (and claims aren’t facts).

Everyone knows the default mode of the media: figure out the story, then gather the facts. But there is a specific way this happens, a way that these cases get off the ground and gain national attention. It’s how reporters and commentators talk themselves into thinking they’re “just covering a story” when they’re already acting as partisans. How it happens is that they start with claims, usually claims made by the family of a young man who has been shot, or by the family’s lawyers, or by “community activists.”

Media people tell themselves that they are just reporting the claims and not taking sides. But the claims are obviously one-sided and extreme—in this case, the claim that Darren Wilson “executed” Michael Brown in cold blood in the middle of the street while Brown was trying to surrender. And once the claim is picked up and trumpeted around at full volume in the press for a week or two, it becomes the default assumption. It becomes the story everyone thinks they know is true.

But the press has merely repeated someone’s claim. It has usually made no effort to validate that claim or check it against independent facts, and usually those facts just aren’t available. So the press tells itself it is being neutral when it is actually broadcasting incendiary and totally unverified claims.

Here are a few rules of thumb for future cases.

Friends and family members of the victim are not unbiased sources. This is totally obvious. Of course they’re biased toward their loved ones. Parents grieving for their child are not going to go on television and say, “Well, he had it coming.” They will not volunteer that their son was troubled or used drugs or was sliding into a life of crime, even if all of those things are true, because that would sound like they are blaming their child for his own death. They are acting out of understandable grief, but it will cause them to make outraged claims about how their boy was “murdered,” regardless of the specific facts of the case, which they probably don’t even know yet. They are acting based on their feelings, which is understandable—for them, but not for the reporters who uncritically broadcast these claims.

Lawyers and “activists” who claim to represent the family are not just biased. They are inherently suspect, and the press should go into the case assuming that these people are going to lie to them. These could be honest people who are just trying to improve their community. But they could also be self-promoting hucksters who are more than eager to promote a lie if it gets them on TV. See “Sharpton, Alfred.”

Eyewitness “testimony” given to the press—i.e., not under oath, with no cross-examination—is meaningless. There is nothing the press loves more than the report of an eyewitness, as given to their own cameras. Unfortunately, this is a great way to pass on totally unreliable information. So the media gave endless play to an initial interview with a friend who said he was present when Michael Brown was shot. The interview was filmed in the office of one of those activist lawyers. Subsequently, every single part of that interview has been shown to be wrong, and the friend rather conspicuously omitted the fact that Brown had robbed a convenience store earlier in the evening.

Read the Ferguson prosecutor’s description of how the eyewitness accounts were often flatly contradicted by physical evidence, how the witnesses changed their stories after they were confronted with the facts, and how some of them ended up admitting that their supposed “eyewitness” testimony was actually just hearsay from around the neighborhood. Then remember all of this the next time you want to make a big national news story out of somebody’s unverified claims.

Am I saying the press should ignore claims of police misconduct? Not at all. They should treat those initial claims as a good lead, but it’s not a real story until they can find objective facts to verify the claims. Which leads me to the second big lesson.

2. Forensics is a science.

These days everybody loves talking about how they love science. Actually loving science is quite another thing.

Claims and counterclaims made in the press are not science. Eyewitnesses lie, omit, exaggerate, or misremember. (And yes, that includes police officers.) But analysis of physical evidence is a science. So the real, hard, verifiable facts about a shooting begin with the forensics. They begin with the ballistics, the autopsy, and the physical evidence from the scene. In this case, the first two big facts that were released from the forensic examination were an autopsy which showed that Michael Brown was not shot in the back, refuting multiple eyewitness accounts, and evidence of Brown’s blood being found inside Darren Wilson’s police cruiser, backing up the officer’s claim that Brown attacked him first.

If the media had waited for these actual, verifiable facts to come out, they might have dropped the whole story before it became a national sensation. Because science.

3. People are individuals, not symbols.

People are individuals. Their actions are individual actions. Every case of the use of force is a discrete incident with its own unique facts. It is not an abstract morality tale about racism or poverty or heavy-handed policing.

But of course reporters and commentators had to make this immediately into a “symbol” of race relations in America. They started doing this five seconds after they discovered the story. It is a reflex drummed into them by decades in the media, where every story must be freighted with as much dramatic, life-or-death, world-shaking significance as it can bear, and then some.

Yet once you make this case into a symbol of race relations in America, you make Michael Brown into a symbol of all young black men. And that opens up a whole world of trouble.

If you make Michael Brown into a symbol of all young black men, you cannot let yourselves admit to or report on any negative facts you discover about him, because then those negative things become facts about all young black men. So if you find out that Michael Brown was a thug who roughed up store clerks so he could steal from them—if you actually have video of him doing it—you can’t report that, because then you are saying that all young black men are thugs, which is clearly racist. So you’ve painted yourself into a corner where reporting the facts makes you racist.

READ ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE: http://thefederalist.com/2014/11/26/dear-media-how-not-to-screw-up-the-next-ferguson/

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commented 2014-11-30 16:43:27 -0500 · Flag
Vic M. writes:

CNN – conspiracy news network; conspiring news network; capitulating news network; crappy news network; contagion news network….
commented 2014-11-30 16:42:48 -0500 · Flag
Thomas N. writes:

where the streets have No Names, Only marauding posse’s of morons ‘looking to discover there very own Civil Right’s moment’

they should have all been rounded up, put on a Bus, with No bathroom break, to Ferguson, Mo. where they could join the other jr. thug’s, and then promptly ensnared and sent to Levenworth.

It truly is a freak show.
commented 2014-11-30 16:41:58 -0500 · Flag
Vic M. writes:

Unfortunately CNBC/MSNBC were worst – actually condoning the mayhem and victimology narrative…..
commented 2014-11-30 16:41:22 -0500 · Flag
B.P. writes:

watched CNN cover the Ferguson situation a few minutes and had to turn off the television before I put my foot through it. I think I witnessed the death of a network…never before have I seen such puerile, moronic, riot-chasing idiocy. It is as if the 3rd rate Gen X reporters and reporterettes at the network (dying as it is in the ratings) were licking their chops at the thought of transmitting burning buildings and violent civil disobedience…and were desperate to instigate something…anything…that they could put on the air…reporters in front of 30 people claiming that there were thousands behind them…other cretins running behind flocks of 20-something chanting malcontents breathlessly claiming that violence was imminent…after 5 minutes I was actively praying that one of the reporters would take a bullet and die “live” on air…anything to put a mirror to their cretinous faces and show them how grotesque and repugnant their bottom-feeding, instigating behavior looks to a vast majority of people.