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Dear Media: How Not to Screw Up the Next Ferguson

If the media want to do a better job next time—and that’s a big “if”—here are five rules they ought to have followed in Ferguson.

I hate to say, “I told you so.” No, really, I hate it. The city of Ferguson, Missouri, is in flames yet again as angry mobs—largely composed of outside agitators—vent their rage against “the system” after a grand jury refused to indict a white police officer for shooting a young black man. All of that destruction could have been prevented if the media knew its own business and didn’t need constant reminders from people like me about how to report on the use of deadly force.

Specifically, I warned them about Zimmerman Amnesia, the dogged failure to learn from the media’s mistakes in reporting previous cases.

[H]ere we go making all of the same mistakes we made in the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case, where reporters did their usual bang-up job of writing the story first and then gathering the facts—only to see much of the early narrative about the shooting dissolve before the case even reached trial. Everyone was shocked when a supposedly open-and-shut case ended with an acquittal, even though it was clear that many of the details were ambiguous and left room for reasonable doubt. Which made that case little different from hundreds of others involving the use of deadly force….

That’s exactly what happened. The early reports were very clear that Michael Brown was a good, kind-hearted young man bound for college, that the shooting was totally unprovoked, that he was shot multiple times in the back, that he was executed in cold blood. Then the evidence, as it emerged, knocked down each of these claims one by one.

Cases involving the use of force tend to be messy, and getting at the facts is difficult. It requires a lot of sorting of competing claims, cross-examination and confrontation of witnesses, and a thorough review of the physical evidence, which often refutes the eyewitness testimony.

In my initial reaction to this case, I only got one thing wrong. I assumed it would eventually go to trial. Instead, the case collapsed so completely under scrutiny that it never even produced an indictment. Yet what I found interesting about prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s statement is that he emphasized how thorough the grand jury’s deliberations were, how he gave them access to all the evidence, how they questioned witnesses, how they were not influenced by press reports, how they deliberated over the case for a long time. This is not the usual purpose of a grand jury. A grand jury is not there to sift through all of the evidence and try the whole case. They’re just there to make sure that there is some evidence, enough to indicate that there is probably a valid case, which can then be allowed to go to trial.

The mainstream media has already convinced millions of people that they just know Darren Wilson is guilty and that the whole justice system is racist and corrupt for refusing to throw him in jail for the rest of his life.

But McCulloch clearly implies that he conducted this grand jury hearing as if it were a full trial. This indicates to me that he knew the case against Darren Wilson was very weak and probably wouldn’t make it past the grand jury, and he knew that this would infuriate those who had already convicted Wilson in the court of public opinion. So he made sure that the case did go to trial in its own way. He used the grand jury to create a very thorough record of all the evidence, the kind of record that would emerge from a full trial, and which can now be released to the public.

But much of the damage is already done. The venal, incompetent mainstream media has already convinced millions of people that they just know Darren Wilson is guilty and that the whole justice system is racist and corrupt for refusing to throw him in jail for the rest of his life.

If the media want to do a better job next time—and that’s a big “if”—I can offer them five basic rules that they ought to have followed in this case. A lot of small business owners along Florissant Street in Ferguson would be better off if they had.

1. It’s not a story until there are facts (and claims aren’t facts).

Everyone knows the default mode of the media: figure out the story, then gather the facts. But there is a specific way this happens, a way that these cases get off the ground and gain national attention. It’s how reporters and commentators talk themselves into thinking they’re “just covering a story” when they’re already acting as partisans. How it happens is that they start with claims, usually claims made by the family of a young man who has been shot, or by the family’s lawyers, or by “community activists.”

Media people tell themselves that they are just reporting the claims and not taking sides. But the claims are obviously one-sided and extreme—in this case, the claim that Darren Wilson “executed” Michael Brown in cold blood in the middle of the street while Brown was trying to surrender. And once the claim is picked up and trumpeted around at full volume in the press for a week or two, it becomes the default assumption. It becomes the story everyone thinks they know is true.

But the press has merely repeated someone’s claim. It has usually made no effort to validate that claim or check it against independent facts, and usually those facts just aren’t available. So the press tells itself it is being neutral when it is actually broadcasting incendiary and totally unverified claims.

Here are a few rules of thumb for future cases.

Friends and family members of the victim are not unbiased sources. This is totally obvious. Of course they’re biased toward their loved ones. Parents grieving for their child are not going to go on television and say, “Well, he had it coming.” They will not volunteer that their son was troubled or used drugs or was sliding into a life of crime, even if all of those things are true, because that would sound like they are blaming their child for his own death. They are acting out of understandable grief, but it will cause them to make outraged claims about how their boy was “murdered,” regardless of the specific facts of the case, which they probably don’t even know yet. They are acting based on their feelings, which is understandable—for them, but not for the reporters who uncritically broadcast these claims.

Lawyers and “activists” who claim to represent the family are not just biased. They are inherently suspect, and the press should go into the case assuming that these people are going to lie to them. These could be honest people who are just trying to improve their community. But they could also be self-promoting hucksters who are more than eager to promote a lie if it gets them on TV. See “Sharpton, Alfred.”

Eyewitness “testimony” given to the press—i.e., not under oath, with no cross-examination—is meaningless. There is nothing the press loves more than the report of an eyewitness, as given to their own cameras. Unfortunately, this is a great way to pass on totally unreliable information. So the media gave endless play to an initial interview with a friend who said he was present when Michael Brown was shot. The interview was filmed in the office of one of those activist lawyers. Subsequently, every single part of that interview has been shown to be wrong, and the friend rather conspicuously omitted the fact that Brown had robbed a convenience store earlier in the evening.

Read the Ferguson prosecutor’s description of how the eyewitness accounts were often flatly contradicted by physical evidence, how the witnesses changed their stories after they were confronted with the facts, and how some of them ended up admitting that their supposed “eyewitness” testimony was actually just hearsay from around the neighborhood. Then remember all of this the next time you want to make a big national news story out of somebody’s unverified claims.

Am I saying the press should ignore claims of police misconduct? Not at all. They should treat those initial claims as a good lead, but it’s not a real story until they can find objective facts to verify the claims. Which leads me to the second big lesson.

2. Forensics is a science.

These days everybody loves talking about how they love science. Actually loving science is quite another thing.

These days everybody loves talking about how they love science. Actually loving science is quite another thing.

Claims and counterclaims made in the press are not science. Eyewitnesses lie, omit, exaggerate, or misremember. (And yes, that includes police officers.) But analysis of physical evidence is a science. So the real, hard, verifiable facts about a shooting begin with the forensics. They begin with the ballistics, the autopsy, and the physical evidence from the scene. In this case, the first two big facts that were released from the forensic examination were an autopsy which showed that Michael Brown was not shot in the back, refuting multiple eyewitness accounts, and evidence of Brown’s blood being found inside Darren Wilson’s police cruiser, backing up the officer’s claim that Brown attacked him first.

If the media had waited for these actual, verifiable facts to come out, they might have dropped the whole story before it became a national sensation. Because science.

3. People are individuals, not symbols.

People are individuals. Their actions are individual actions. Every case of the use of force is a discrete incident with its own unique facts. It is not an abstract morality tale about racism or poverty or heavy-handed policing.

But of course reporters and commentators had to make this immediately into a “symbol” of race relations in America. They started doing this five seconds after they discovered the story. It is a reflex drummed into them by decades in the media, where every story must be freighted with as much dramatic, life-or-death, world-shaking significance as it can bear, and then some.

Yet once you make this case into a symbol of race relations in America, you make Michael Brown into a symbol of all young black men. And that opens up a whole world of trouble.

If you make Michael Brown into a symbol of all young black men, you cannot let yourselves admit to or report on any negative facts you discover about him, because then those negative things become facts about all young black men. So if you find out that Michael Brown was a thug who roughed up store clerks so he could steal from them—if you actually have video of him doing it—you can’t report that, because then you are saying that all young black men are thugs, which is clearly racist. So you’ve painted yourself into a corner where reporting the facts makes you racist.

The presumption of innocence exists for a reason. Reasonable doubt exists for a reason. Grand juries exist for a reason.

On the other hand, you have also made Darren Wilson into a symbol of all police officers. This creates an incentive for people to rally to his side because they want to defend the police and law and order. There are a lot of us who remember the crime wave of the 70s and 80s, so we’re inclined to cut a little slack to the men on the thin blue line.

Even worse, though, is what you accomplish for those who are inclined to believe Wilson is guilty. Because you’ve made him into a symbol of the entire system, then if he’s guilty, the whole system is corrupt, murderous, and racist and needs to be burned to the ground. So you’ve just validated the worldview of the Ferguson rioters.

You can avoid both traps just by remembering that individuals are not symbols and that every shooting has its own irreducibly concrete facts and context. If you remember that, you can report the facts freely one way or the other without worrying about whether you are promoting or undermining some larger ideological narrative.

4. Legal procedures and privileges exist for a reason.

The presumption of innocence exists for a reason. Reasonable doubt exists for a reason. Grand juries exist for a reason. You might want to take a few minutes to learn what those reasons are.

When a news anchor says, for example, that the Ferguson grand jury “failed” to produce an indictment, he’s indicating that he thinks the system “failed.” No, they didn’t fail. They succeeded at weighing the evidence and deciding whether the case had grounds to move forward. This procedure exists to prevent prosecutors from ruining a man’s life by putting his person and freedom in jeopardy based on insufficient evidence.

What the media is really complaining about in this case is that the grand jury failed to be a rubber stamp for their own presumptive verdict in the case. It may or may not be true, as the old saw has it, that a prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. But the media is incensed that they can’t get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich.

That leads me to the last big lesson.

5. You are not the story.

Call this the Geraldo Rivera Effect. No matter what story Geraldo is reporting on, it’s never really about the story. It’s about how bold and resourceful he is to be reporting on it. You can send him to Afghanistan after September 11, as Fox News unwisely did, and he won’t be reporting to you about the dangerous religious fanatics who gave safe haven to al-Qaeda. No, he’ll report to you about how bold and adventurous he is to be forging his way through the mountains of the Hindu Kush in his flak jacket.

In Ferguson, reporters were falling all over themselves to be social justice warriors (to coin a phrase) who would strike a blow against racism and an unjust system. When they cast themselves in this role, they became partisans who were no longer able to admit facts that run contrary to the partisan narrative. I know it’s a lot less glamorous to give up on being a crusader for social justice and just be a guy who reports the facts. But if you’re in the media, that’s your job.

It’s time to learn all of these lessons before the next contentious shooting, because there will be one. In a land of 300 million people, the ordinary course of interactions between public and police will inevitably produce some tragic results. Some of these shootings will turn out to be justified, others won’t. And there is no way of immediately knowing which is which. If the media doesn’t want to be in the position of inciting a riot each time this happens—and again, that’s a big “if”—they need to learn how to do a more responsible job of reporting on the use of force.

I say all of this without much hope that the mainstream media will listen to any of it. It goes against their ideological bias, against their inflated sense of self-regard, and against their short-term economic interests, which favor the person who is first to break the “news” of the latest unverified claim. So I fully expect to be coming back after the next big case, saying “I told you so” again, and running down the same damn list.

Use this instead as a guide for the skeptical reader and viewer, as a way of spotting when you’re being flim-flammed by a premature media frenzy about a sensational case, and to prepare yourself for the inevitable letdown when the facts once again take the air out of the media narrative.

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