Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

News reports on Michael Brown’s death: how do mourners become a “mob”?

Around noon on Saturday, an 18-year old African American teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a local police officer in Ferguson, MO, a suburb of St. Louis. Accounts differ as to the events that preceded the shooting. The St. Louis County Police Department has said that Brown and another man struggled with an officer and pushed him back into his squad car, then attempted to seize the officer’s gun; a witness says that a police officer told Brown to walk on the sidewalk instead of the street, grabbed Brown after he exchanged words with the officer and shot the young man, shooting Brown again after the young man had his hands in the air.

After Brown was shot, members of the community gathered to mourn and protest his death. As a crowd gathered, more than 100 police from 15 different departments arrived at the scene. Videos from the scene show peaceful protesters chanting, facing a group of officers and police dogs.

The facts surrounding Brown’s death will be the subject of an investigation, and there are likely to be many accounts of community and police reactions after his death. I have no insights into what actually happened, though I will be watching closely over the next days. However, we do know how news media reported on the events.

The St. Louis Post Dispatch ran a story on the shooting and community response initially headlined “Fatal Shooting by Ferguson police prompt mob reaction”. Perhaps realizing that referring to a group as a “mob” incorrectly connotes violent behavior on part of the protesters, editors revised the headline. The current headline reads “Anger, confrontation after fatal shooting of teen by Ferguson police officer”. The initial title is apparent from the URL of the story: http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/fatal-shooting-by-ferguson-police-prompts-mob-reaction/article_04e3885b-4131-5e49-b784-33cd3acbe7f1.html

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A Google News search for “Ferguson” the day after the Michael Brown killing

Other stories about the shooting focused on the crowd reaction. Two stories about an “angry crowd” have had their headlines subsequently edited: “Police Confronted by Angry Crowd in Ferguson” has become “Officer-Involved Fatal Shooting in Ferguson”, while “Fatal Shooting by Ferguson Police Draws Angry Crowd” is now “Anger, confrontation after fatal shooting of teen by Ferguson police officer”. (In both cases, we can see the original headline through Google News and through the story URL.) Other stories focused on the crowd have run without changes to their headlines. An AP story on the shooting and response by Alan Scherzaiger ran on numerous websites with the headline “Crowd shouts ‘kill the police’ after cop fatally shoots teen”.

It’s concerning that what makes Michael Brown’s death newsworthy was not the death of an unarmed teen, but the idea of police officers facing off against an “angry crowd”. The “mob” framing suggests that the crowd was violent, as does the widely circulated headline that makes a call for vengeance the key element of the story. Other reports suggest that the chant “No justice, no peace” was misheard or misreported as “kill the police”, or note that reporters heard chants demanding justice, but only second-hand reports of chants of “kill the police”.

It matters whether the people protesting Michael Brown’s death are mourners, activists or part of a mob.

In studying how news gets made, we need to consider both agenda-setting and framing. Agenda-setting is the process through which media, PR people, activists, politicians and other actors work through the question of what gets to be news. When Trayvon Martin was killed, it took several days before national media picked up the story – after a brief burst of local news, there were no reports on Trayvon’s death until his family found a pro-bono PR firm that was able to put the shooting onto the national media agenda.

It seems clear that Michael Brown’s death will be the subject of a national conversation, coming as it does on the heels of the death of Eric Garner in New York City at the hands of the NYPD. What is not yet clear is what frame will dominate media coverage of Brown’s death, what language and concepts we will use to understand . That one of the first frames reached for was that of mob violence suggests something deeply uncomfortable about our reaction to a group of people of color demanding their rights in the face of apparent police violence.

My student Alexandre Gonçalves just wrote a brilliant masters thesis analyzing Brazilian media coverage of a set of protests called “rozelinhos”, literally “little strolls”. In rolezinhos, black and brown youth from low-income neighborhoods showed up en masse in shopping malls to hang out, take photos and shop. To the extent that rolezinhos are protests, they are mostly a way that young people can claim a right to be present in public space. The media reaction to the rolezinhos was striking – journalists explained that the phenomenon was a revival of “arrastão“, or “dragnet”, a form of theft in which gangs of youth surprised beachgoers and robbed them. The “arrastão” framing of rolezinhos lasted until mall owners, fearing a loss of business, took to the press and explained that no one had been robbed in the rolezinjos, as in an arrastão.

In other words, confronted with a new social phenomenon, Brazilian media reached for a frame through which to understand the situation. That they reached for a frame about theft when no theft occurred suggests deep-seated biases around race and age in Brazilian society. When people of color asking for justice initially described as a mob, or an “angry crowd” threatening the police, it tells us something very uncomfortable about the biases in American media.

Gonçalves was able to study the reframing of rolezinhos in Brazilian media because the articles written about arrastão remained online after the framing had changed. (He explains that, after realizing that these protests weren’t thefts, a frame emerged describing Brazil as an apartheid state and the movements as a protest against that apartheid. When it became clear that the protests were taking place in neighborhoods where non-whites were the majority, that frame was also abandoned.) In the case of US media, editors have quickly edited stories to remove the initial “black crowd = mob” framing. That’s probably a good thing, as that framing prompts readers of newspapers to focus on the crowd reaction, not the killing. But the rapid editing of these stories makes it hard to for us to have a conversation about a media portrayal of a community response that reveals more about media bias than about how the citizens of Ferguson, MO reacted to the death of one of their own.

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  1. Self-segregation on social networks and the implications for the Ferguson, MO story | ... My heart’s in Accra - […] discussing the implications of Brown’s killing and the community and police response. I wrote a quick blog post, noting …

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