News coverage of the Michael Brown shooting: headlines matter

News coverage of the Michael Brown shooting: headlines matter

The killing by police of Michael Brown, a teen in the St. Louis area, is burning up social media and starting to get mainstream media coverage. This is an important developing story raising questions about police conduct, and investigations are underway. But some media outlets have already used this gruesome crime scene to paint another picture, which plays to the prejudices they assume in their readers, and just happens to coincide with how police want the incident to be framed.

In the hours that followed Brown's shooting, his body reportedly was left lying in the street for up to 4 hours. Photos from the scene show a substantial flow of blood running down the street from his corpse. (They can be found online, but out of respect for the victim and his family we won't post them here.) Brown's relatives began to gather at the scene, distraught at the sight of their loved one bleeding out on the street. Police were keeping the angry citizens at bay while evidence was being gathered. People in the crowd were furious. Some shouted obscenities. Others vented their anger directly at the police on the scene, including some shouts of "Kill the police!" The police called in forces from around the region, and a highly militarized response, including armored vehicles and officers with dogs, reported to the site, creating disturbing echoes of photos from the 1960s civil rights movement.

Over the course of the evening, people at the scene organized a vigil for Brown, then marched to police headquarters to demand justice. All reports about this part of the events confirm that they chanted strong, but non-violent, messages, such as "No justice, no peace," and "Hey hey, ho ho, killer cops have got to go."

These are the basic facts of the first day's events in Ferguson, Missouri.

The news media has an obligation to the public to approach all stories with as much objectivity as possible, and to emphasize the most important known facts about a situation in their reporting. Some outlets did a generally good job of covering the day's events. Others failed their readers.

Compare and contrast these two headlines:

The first, from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, centers the story on the shooting victim, while also acknowledging the public outcry.

The second, from the Associated Press, quite literally disappears the victim and the fact of his death, and focuses instead on the most incendiary comment anyone heard at the scene.

Reading the two stories side by side serves as an object lesson in journalism. By and large, the Post-Dispatch tells the story straight down the middle. AP, however, seems to write with an agenda that's controlling how the story is told. Let's look closer.

AP: the story is about the angry crowd

Here's the lede paragraph written by AP's Alan Scher Gaiger:

FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — The fatal shooting of a black teenager by police sent hundreds of angry residents out of their apartments Saturday in a St. Louis suburb, igniting shouts of “kill the police” during a confrontation that lasted several hours.

Notice how the opening reduces the key fact of the story, the killing of Michael Brown, to nothing more than a trigger that set off an angry crowd. Note too how the prominence of "kill the police" suggests that this was the primary message being voiced by those who protested. And note that the angry residents were "sent out of their apartments." Why, exactly, is the kind of housing occupied by these residents relevant to their reaction to Brown's death? We'll come back to that point later.

Here's where the "kill the police" quote is given context and a source in the AP story.

A spokesman with the St. Louis County Police Department, which is investigating the shooting at the request of the local department, confirmed a Ferguson police officer shot the man. The spokesman didn’t give the reason for the shooting. St. Louis County police said a large crowd confronted officers following the shooting, yelling such things as “kill the police.”

The only cited source stating the phrase "kill the police" in the AP story is the St. Louis County Police Department. It's transparently obvious why the police would want the press to know they heard this phrase. This rhetoric, in their minds, justifies the outrageous over-reaction of the police force, including snarling K-9 units and paramilitary vehicles. The cops want the public to know these words were shouted, and they were afraid for their own safety.

I attempted to contact the author, Mr. Gaiger, via Twitter to ask him if he had any corroborating non-police sources for that phrase. I received no response.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch changes headline after feedback

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch headline displayed above was not their article's original header. When the story was first posted to its website, it read:

Fatal shooting by Ferguson police prompts mob reaction

The paper changed the headline after a few hours, but it lives on in the story's URL. The following tweets went out from the paper in this order:

The Post-Dispatch initially went with a focus on the crowd, which it referred to as a "mob." But in response to negative feedback on social media and elsewhere, as the story developed the paper re-worked the headline over the course of the day to the more descriptive, less value-laden headline seen above.

Here's how the Post-Dispatch story opens:

FERGUSON • The fatal shooting of a teen Saturday afternoon by a Ferguson police officer outside an apartment complex sent angry residents into the street, taunting police and firing shots.

Notice that these reporters explain that the shooting took place outside an apartment complex, which is much clearer than the AP's reference to apartments. Their story claims that shots were heard on the scene as police arrived, a detail that has not been widely reported elsewhere. And this story first references shouts of "kill the police" later in the body, and at no time did the Post-Dispatch elevate this incendiary quote to their headline or story lede. About six paragraphs into their story we get this:

Further shots were heard as police arrived immediately after the shooting but no one was injured as angry residents screamed obscenities mixed with threats to “kill the police.” More than 60 area police officers responded to the scene.

Noting that the Post-Dispatch story also fails to cite a source for the "kill the police" shouts, I contacted the authors, Leah Thorsen and Steve Giegerich, via email to ask them how it came to be included in their story. Thorsen promptly replied that she herself heard the phrase at the scene, as did two other Post-Dispatch staffers, another reporter and a photographer. 

The key difference between the two reports on the Ferguson scene is that the Post-Dispatch story notes, but does not highlight, the "kill the police" comments, and does a better job than the AP in describing how the atmosphere evolved over the course of time.

What's this about apartment dwellers, anyway?

The differing way the two stories indicated that much of the crowd at the scene were apartment dwellers is also worth deconstructing. As noted, both stories mention apartments in their ledes, but only the Post-Dispatch explains this reference by pointing out the proximity of the shooting to an apartment complex.

The way it's presented in the AP's lede, it feels as if it's an effort to paint the crowd as coming from a lower socioeconomic class, with all the associations such a reference brings.

The AP's reputation for reporting on stories with a racial component is already under scrutiny. When the jury returned a guilty verdict in Theodore Wafer's trial for shooting Renisha McBride, an unarmed young woman in Michigan, here's the inelegant way AP summarized the case on Twitter:

People were outraged at the insensitivity of this tweet, which packed an amazing number of coded racial and class references into less than 140 characters. Rather than using the key players' names, the choice of "suburban Detroit homeowner" and "woman who showed up drunk on his porch" manages to convey privileged status on the defendant and blame on the victim. 

"Suburban homeowners" are increasingly the only market for newspapers, which are losing readers, especially younger, more diverse, and urban audiences, to the internet. AP might as well have said "White Man Like Us convicted." Mentioning the victim's inebriation, and not the fact that she "showed up on the porch" seeking help after a car crash, virtually screams "bad scary person who had it coming."

Why it matters

Taken with their handling of the killing of Michael Brown, a pattern emerges of framing stories from the perspective of white, suburban homeowners in ways that stoke their fears of urban apartment dwellers and scary strangers knocking at their doors. People consistently overestimate the amount of violent crime in their communities, and the way crimes are covered in the media is a significant contributor to this perception.

The AP is a primary source for many newspapers and news websites around the world, and their panic-provoking headline and lede are all over the place. Some sites that use AP, including Talking Points Memo, initially ran with the AP story verbatim, but later changed the headline. Editor Josh Marshall confirmed to me that he felt the AP's headline "gave too much prominence to that single quote," and the story now appears on their site under the following, better headline:

Community Angered After Police Fatally Shot Unarmed Missouri Teen

The Associated Press needs to take a long, hard look at how it frames stories and reports the news. They're stoking fear instead of shedding light. They're in the habit of demonizing people of color as violent, dangerous, and a legitimate threat to law enforcement, contributing to an atmosphere in which citizens think they're justified in shooting strangers at their door, and cops think they're justified in shooting unarmed citizens. 

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