Media Coverage of Ferguson Unrest Draws Criticism

By David Cruz

At first it was police, confronting and detaining reporters trying to cover events in Ferguson. More than a dozen reportedly detained for a variety of reasons. But, as the coverage has hit saturation point, the tide is starting to turn a bit. Frustration among demonstrators with commercial media outlets, which have been criticized for boiling down the issues to black and white, literally, and in some cases getting it totally wrong — like when a CNN web report accused the police commanding officer of throwing gang signs.

“Absolutely, there’s been some irresponsible reporting and that’s the frustration. A lot of people have been trying to sensationalize this, nor deal with facts,” said Sen. Cory Booker. “We need to be prudent and focus on facts and try to get to a point where the press is helping us to get to those higher ideals of justice, fairness and equality that we wanna get to.”

That’s a high ideal indeed, when cable news networks are focused on appealing to a specific audience, and the ranks of “news” gatherers have been swollen by everyday citizens with cell phone cameras, resulting in more opportunities for those in front of all these cameras to act out.

“It is part of the job and [journalists] have covered the violence that is there and I think, by and large, they have covered what they have been seeing, that is I don’t think they have as some have criticized sort of agitated,” said Charlton Mcilwain, a media professor at NYU, speaking to WNET’s MetroFocus, in an interview that will air next week. “There is something about, I think, the spectacle of it all and the cameras that are there that amplifies the violence and actions going on because people know that they are being watched and that they’re being seen.”

But what about those confrontations? Police facing off against people with cell phones. Can they just tell you to stop filming? Is anyone with a cell phone camera a journalist? In New Jersey, anyway, the answer is — kind of.

“The New Jersey Supreme Court had a case on this — ‘Too Much Media’ v. Hale. And there are certain requirements but the court recognized new media and the New Jersey Supreme Court explained that a single blogger can, if they meet certain requirements, be, in fact, considered a part of the news media that can have the protection of New Jersey’s reporter shield,” said Ed Barocas, legal director for the ACLU-NJ.

The ACLU encourages citizens to exercise their right to video police activity. They’ve actually created an app for that, the idea being that more eyes on police are better than less.

With a story as complex as Ferguson, it can be tempting to want simple answers and in this new media landscape, there are plenty of places to go for that. But the challenge to consumers now is to find the news you need and not just the news you want.