Media in Ferguson: Advocacy Journalism or Just Business?

A commentary on media criticism and the coverage of the anxious last few months in Ferguson, Mo., recently caught my eye on my Twitter feed thanks to Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post. The critique by Noah Rothman is largely insightful from a fresh right-of-center perspective, but one paragraph at the end stood out and troubled me as both a former journalist and journalism student who still follows the media closely.

In recapping some of the mistakes made by the media in Ferguson, particularly by broadcast media, Rothman wrote:

The news media did not come to Ferguson to chronicle events but to correct historical wrongs. The media’s detachment in the 1960s during episodes of unrest in Harlem, Watts, Baltimore, Detroit, Newark, and even at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago has been studied and criticized by two generations of journalism scholars and J-school teachers, many of whom believe that the doctrine of objectivity is merely a way of maintaining an unjust status quo.

I graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1995 with an emphasis in broadcasting, so I can’t speak to what journalism scholars and teachers have studied or criticized before or after my time, nor can I speak to what scholars and teachers at other schools have studied. But my experience at Missouri was completely contrary to picture Rothman portrays here.

During my time at Missouri, I felt I experienced two different worlds. On the classroom side, we studied Murrow and Cronkite and Woodward and Bernstein. We critiqued the New York Times’ Supreme Court cases in Sullivan and the Pentagon Papers. If Harlem, Watts and Chicago ever came up, it was only in passing. Our studies reinforced the notion of an independent press committed to ethically telling all sides of the story and exposing corruption wherever it may be found. The idea of advocacy journalism was anathema to our professors.

On the laboratory side — the actual working journalist side — we engaged in the same practices as our paid counterparts. We published a daily newspaper and reported the news for an NBC affiliate and NPR station. We reported the news, but we also learned an understanding of the business side — namely attracting and keeping an audience.

These two worlds were largely in conflict. Our classroom studies were largely rooted in the Golden Age of journalism, focusing on rooting out corruption in politics and business and building a firewall between the press and outside influences, namely advertisers and meddling owners.

One of the key factors driving me out of journalism was that I saw which side was winning. In the 19 years since I graduated, I’ve seen the classroom side get its butt kicked by the laboratory side. Good journalism still exists in many places, but in the 24-hour world of cable, internet and social media, good TV wins out every single time.

Rothman makes it seem that national journalists descended on Ferguson in an effort to correct decades of observational journalism and right a cultural wrong. I know for a fact there are great journalists who went to Ferguson because they knew there was a compelling story to tell, and many of those stories are continuing to come to light.

But unfortunately, the majority of national journalists went to Ferguson for business. Occasionally the public’s interest and journalism are in alignment. There was much greater reason for journalism to flood Ferguson than there was for the same people to be covering the Casey Anthony trial.

Rothman cites CNN’s Don Lemon as an example of a journalist injecting himself into the story:

CNN anchor Don Lemon—who a week earlier had offered the grieving Brown family his personal aid, noting, “You know how to get in touch with me”—joined the protesters on the frontlines. Goading the police into controlling his movements just as they were controlling those of the demonstrators surrounding him, the CNN anchor indicted the police. “Now you see why people are so upset here, because we have been here all day,” Lemon said as he was physically pushed back. “We’re on national television. So imagine what they are doing to people you don’t see on national television, the people who don’t have a voice like we do.”

I don’t know what collective and individual motivations of the media and journalists were any more than Rothman does. My guess is that it is less conspiratorial and more sinister than Rothman portrays. If the media were simply trying to correct a social wrong, there are plenty of journalism professors who would support that argument — a fight against systemic racism is just the kind of battle against corruption idealistic journalists are bred to wage.

But the more likely reality is that they are simply trying to get good TV, ingratiating themselves close to the Brown family in hopes of an exclusive interview and generating viral-worthy video of themselves embedded on the front lines of a domestic battlefield.

I don’t blame the journalists — the fault is ours. A reasoned, well-argued town hall on the issues facing Ferguson would draw fewer viewers than a 30-year-old football game on ESPN Classic. Journalism is largely a reflection of society. If all we want is superficial coverage and great video, that’s all we’re going to get.