Ethics in Media Coverage of Officer Involved Shootings: The Ferguson Effect

The shooting of Ferguson resident Michael Brown, 18, by veteran officer Darren Wilson, 28, was the spark that lit the fire for unprecedented media coverage of officer-involved shootings.

Since that fateful day in August of 2014, the media and public have participated in a never before seen number of public opinion “trials” that are full of speculation, half-truths, Monday morning quarterbacking and a vast number of misconceptions. Even a USA Today timeline of events, published in August 2015, failed to mention important details of Brown’s actions—omitting Brown’s assault on Wilson during their first encounter. It seems that the court of public opinion is not only in session, but show no signs of going to recess anytime soon.

One of the biggest disservices the current 24-hour news cycle has done for consumers is the reporting of “facts” before they are fully vetted. It’s bad enough when the media get names of suspects wrong, or when they misreport on the death of a senator—but convicting a city employee of murdering an “innocent” man without proper investigation of the facts has to be one of the most prominent examples of violating the public’s trust.

In his Washington Post article, Jonathan Capehart admitted, “in those early hours and early days, there was more unknown than known.” Yet, that didn’t stop him from sharing his thoughts with MSNBC’s Michael Skolnik on “the death of another unarmed black man at the hands of a white police officer.”

The media’s insatiable appetite for too quickly reporting misinformation is not only a disservice to the news consumers, but to the people whose lives they ruin in the process.

Capehart now admits that the “’Hands up, don’t shoot’ movement was built on a lie.” The two investigations into Brown’s death, released by the Justice Department “have forced me to deal with two uncomfortable truths: Brown never surrendered with his hands up, and Wilson was justified in shooting Brown,” Capehart wrote.

If hindsight is 20/20, where does that leave us as a nation? If when truths come to light lives are still ruined, communities still destroyed and misconceptions are still perpetuated years later, how can we not question journalistic practices of reporting half-truths in the name of breaking news?

[As this post is about journalistic integrity and ethical practices, I should note that Capehart also noted that the DOJ report revealed an alarming number of civil rights violations over the years from the Ferguson Police Department, which also needs to be addressed. But, that does not negate the need for media to be more responsible in their reporting. Stories that are as volatile as police shootings of minorities need to be handled with the utmost integrity and deal strictly with facts—not speculation that has the potential to leave another community destroyed in the wake of violent protests that were built on a lie.] 

FullSizeRenderGuest author: Kristi Reed is a freelance writer and photographer living in SE Asia with her family. She is actively engaged in combating global injustice, ending modern-day slavery and documenting current world events. Kristi is currently seeking a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Arizona State University.

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