Gateway journalism review - 2016

Media rollercoaster

By William Freivogel

Traditional media had amazing highs and stunning lows in the coverage of Ferguson.  First the lows:

- Ferguson was portrayed as a symbol of segregation and white flight – part of a suburban ring of fire around St. Louis, the New York Times said – when Ferguson actually is one of the most residentially integrated suburbs in an otherwise residentially segregated St. Louis area.

-  The New York Times committed journalistic malpractice by reporting the name of the street where Darren Wilson had lived and then refused to admit to the ethical breach.

-  Fox misreported Michael Brown had broken Officer Wilson’s eye socket. He hadn’t.

- ProPublica published an influential data analysis concluding young African-American men were 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts in the past three years.

 Most of the mainstream media picked up the report as gospel.  Few paid attention to the work of Peter Moskos, a criminologist at John Jay, pointing out the disparity was so large partly because of the way ProPublica sliced the data.  The actual disparity is that black youths are six times more likely than white youths to be killed by officers – still too many but far from the 21 times.

–     When the press showed up at St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch’s press conference the night of the decision not to indict, three reporters asked the same unanswerable question – what was the vote of the grand jurors.  One reporter began his question with a polemic about the law not protecting African-Americans.     

- MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell misreported McCulloch’s decision to change the legal instructions for the grand jury.  McCulloch’s change made it easier to indict Wilson, but O’Donnell’s inaccurate account in November, 2014 portrayed the change as a reason for a new grand jury - a position picked up as gospel by a liberal echo chamber of online publications.

- CNN breathlessly reported in September, 2014 an exclusive on two white contractors backing the Hands Up Don’t Shoot account - a video report still on the news organization’s website even though the FBI discounted the contractors’ statements.

- This American Life reported in 2015 that Missouri officials killed the successful city-county school desegregation program in 1999, when they actually moved to preserve and extend it.  Nikole Hannah-Jones, now a reporter for The New York Times, removed the error from the broadcast after first insisting it wasn’t wrong.

The list of outstanding work by traditional media is shorter:

- The Post-Dispatch photo staff took amazing photos and won a Pulitzer Prize for the paper.  Editorial editor Tony Messenger and his deputy Kevin Horrigan wrote passionate powerful editorials that were Pulitzer finalists.

- The Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize for its 2015 data-driven study showing that 987 people had been killed by police.  Before the Post’s study, where was no reliable accounting of police killings.

- St. Louis Public Radio’s presented multi-faceted coverage that included a live blog of social media, the We Live Here podcast on race and class in St. Louis and a one-year later report on how what Ferguson sounded like, looked like and felt.  The radio station won national awards for its work.

Ferguson becomes Selma

Land of Dred Scott