On August 9, 2014, in the small suburb of Ferguson, just outside of St. Louis, MO, 18-year-old Michael Brown, who is black and was unarmed, was shot and killed by a white police officer. The incident sparked violent protests which are now in their eighth day in the largely black community. In the aftermath of that tragic situation, the media frenzy being witnessed across the globe is revealing another disturbing dynamic. News coverage of the unrest in Ferguson now includes journalists and camera crews injecting themselves into the fray either intentionally or unintentionally, and causing an escalation of the crisis. By some accounts, journalists are being seen as agitators between the police and the community, and many view this kind of reporting as sensationalist journalism at its best or worst, and all for the sake of ratings and or notoriety.
As expected, events in Ferguson have drawn media outlets from all over the world to report on the evolving story. Unexpected, is the spate of yellow journalism that is emerging amid the violence. With the Internet and social media such as Twitter and Facebook as additional pulpits from which to disseminate the Ferguson story, journalists are actually becoming part of the story instead of performing their function to objectively report it. As such, there have been a number of journalists covering the story who have been arrested or detained.
Yellow journalism, as it is known, was spawned during the 1890s and is often cited as the catalyst for the start of the Spanish-American War. It was this kind of journalism that not only sensationalized events, but often manufactured them and is seen by historians as having played an integral role in driving the United States to go to war with Spain. At the time, the New York Journal, owned by William Randolph Hearst, and the New York World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer, were fiercely competing for readership and created sensationalist headlines to sell newspapers. After Hearst’s baseless claim that the battleship Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor by the Spanish, public opinion driven by sensationalist journalism became too strong for Americans to tolerate, and war with Spain soon followed. The origin of the term yellow journalism is said to have come from characters dressed in yellow and used by both Hearst and Pulitzer in their newspapers to make their statements.
The media is a powerful force that, due to its departure from merely reporting facts with objectivity and integrity, is now often viewed as the fourth branch of government with just as much corruption and the same lack of integrity. The public, as illustrated in relevant Ferguson media accounts, has a similar distrust of the media as it does for the government.
There is no clearer example of journalists escalating the crisis in Ferguson than MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, who on Sunday locked and loaded against the police with his Twitter account. Hayes tweeted that if a reporter or journalist walks approximately 100 feet outside a designated area for the press, they would be spotlighted by the police with a “hair trigger.” On Monday, Hayes followed with comments that “until charges are brought against the officer, the violence in Ferguson will continue.” Those comments caused enough backlash to force Hayes to walk them back a few steps with clarification. However, not to be outdone by mere tweets, Hayes and another member of the MSNBC crew were apparently far enough outside the police designated area deemed safe for the press that they were pelted with rocks by angry protesters. Demonstrators could clearly be heard shouting at them to report the truth. Neither Hayes nor the other MSNBC employee was harmed, and Hayes, in yellow journalism, look-at-me-being-hit-with-rocks, sensationalist fashion, can claim a ratings mission accomplished.
Ironically, Hayes reported after the rock-throwing incident how quickly the scene can one minute be calm and quiet and the next minute transition to the other extreme. Yet, his report gives no thought to the possibility that the media’s presence could, and most likely should, be logically viewed as the agitating factor in that particular incident. However, considering the media’s inherent lust for ratings, Hayes’ presence may very well have been calculated. As the unrest continues an increasing number of reports are surfacing that claim journalists have now become part of the problem. With the media’s reputation being somewhat less than stellar, suspicions are growing that some journalists are possibly using the First Amendment right of freedom of the press to escalate and exploit the Ferguson crisis for its own gain.
Opinion By Mark Politi