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Editor's Weekly: How journalism failed in Ferguson

Ferguson protest 3/12/2015
Lawrence Bryant | St. Louis American

Watching yet another panel discuss press coverage of Ferguson this week, I couldn’t help but squirm. We journalists hold others accountable for their shortcomings. But in the months since Michael Brown was shot, we’ve had trouble owning up to our own.

Let’s be honest. While showing courage and tenacity, news organizations also failed the citizens we’re supposed to serve in certain key respects. And while social media offered other ways for people to share news, Ferguson demonstrated again that this source of information has its own pitfalls.

With the benefit of hindsight, let’s look at two problems that Ferguson revealed about the news ecosystem we count on to inform public discussion.

The first is a sin of commission. In news as in life, accuracy is the essential building block of understanding and trust. Yet certain reported “facts” about Michael Brown’s death and ensuing developments turned out to be wrong. This includes the “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative, later debunked by the Justice Department’s exhaustive report.

The origins of this falsehood are instructive. The narrative grew from statements by people who claimed to be eyewitnesses. But either they weren’t, they changed their stories or their accounts were contradicted by physical evidence, the Justice Department found.

News organizations are supposed to dig deep for the truth, and that’s what reporters were trying to do when they interviewed these sources. But good intentions are no excuse for bad reporting, and we need to acknowledge what went wrong if we hope to get it right in the future.

The second category of problems that Ferguson exposed involves sins of omission — stories that didn’t get told.

For example, the Justice Department’s report chronicled longstanding abuses by Ferguson’s police and courts. But until Ferguson exploded in protest, those problems got episodic attention at best.

Again, the origins of failure are instructive. What happens in any one municipality is usually of little interest to those who live elsewhere, so reporters naturally gravitate to matters of greater scope. Yet the collective weight of many small injustices adds up to a significant issue. News organizations generally failed to see that, and our myopia left the public blind.

As hard as it is to admit mistakes, it's even harder figure out how to prevent them from recurring.

When a hot news story is breaking, information spreads instantaneously from reporters and citizens alike. It's unrealistic to expect that facts will be vetted as thoroughly as Justice Department investigators were able to do with the benefit of time. When newsroom budgets are tight and public attention spans can be short, it's easy to see why complicated issues get short shrift.

Yet there are ways for journalists and citizens to navigate the shoals of misinformation. Here are some things each of us can do to strengthen the news ecosystem that sustains us all:

1. Practice healthy skepticism. Even in the chaos of breaking news, be wary of trusting or sharing uncorroborated accounts. Make reasoned judgments about what to believe.

2. Demand honesty. Expect reporters to explain where information originated and whether it’s been confirmed. Expect yourself to identify and assess the source of information before you believe or share it.

3. Value patience. Good reporters work the loose ends of a story until a full tapestry of information can be pieced together. Now that anyone can share news, everyone shares the responsibility to keep asking questions, avoid jumping to conclusions and remain willing to rethink assumptions.

As Ferguson demonstrated, the work of informing the public is now a shared enterprise with many kinds of news organizations and involved citizens playing important roles. No one has a monopoly on truth or error. Everyone will benefit if we each take responsibility for fixing what went wrong.

Margaret Wolf Freivogel is the editor of St. Louis Public Radio. She was the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news organization, from 2008 to 2013. A St. Louis native, Margie previously worked for 34 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter, Washington correspondent and assistant managing editor. She has received numerous awards for reporting as well as a lifetime achievement award from the St. Louis Press Club and the Missouri Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a past board member of the Investigative News Network and a past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. Margie graduated from Kirkwood High School and Stanford University. She is married to William H. Freivogel. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Margie enjoys rowing and is a fan of chamber music.

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