Ferguson, Journalism, Twitter

Ferguson Twitter, Michael Brown autoposy tweet

The news media and social media: Together for better and for worse


 By Sue Ellen Christian and Herbert Lowe

{Note: This is the second in Zeteo‘s Fall 2014 series of pieces related to borders.}


St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch indicted both traditional news media and social media when he announced the grand jury’s decision to not recommend charges against Darren Wilson, the white police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African American, under circumstances that may never be clear. “The most significant challenge encountered in this investigation,” McCulloch said, “has been the 24-hour news cycle and its insatiable appetite for something—for anything—to talk about; following closely behind were the non-stop rumors on social media.”

Our own evaluation of the performance of traditional and social media in the Ferguson story is mixed. News consumers have had access to great reporting and predictable, tablet-thin coverage, as well as to a powerful social-media movement that has roiled the Twittersphere with posts both smart and stupid. Twitter and the news media will be intertwined for some time as the story in Ferguson and related police shootings and protests, in New York and elsewhere nationwide, continue to be broadcast via hashtags.

McCullough’s indictment of the news and social media was almost entirely self-serving, but we agree that both media forms can cause significant trouble during national news events. As discussed below, traditional news media churned a vast quantity of material for online, print and broadcast (particularly cable TV) without a corresponding depth of investigation or analysis.[1] Stories that gained traction were repeated over and over, and images quickly gained a life of their own. Twitter, on the other hand, has been a force for change and instability, often undermining legacy media. But when the two types of media are joined, each can make up for the other’s most glaring weaknesses. Legacy media, notwithstanding all the well-deserved criticisms of it, has standards of journalistic practice and ethics that curb the reporting of rumors, thus correcting the “anything goes” of Twitter. At the same time, tweets can call attention to traditional media’s failings. In the Ferguson story, we have seen how the diffuse nature of Twitter can become a focused and potent force, not only creating or altering public understanding, but also affecting legacy media’s coverage.

What follows relates to how, in a sense, and even if unintentionally, traditional and social media worked together to report what happened in Ferguson. We will first address Twitter’s most salient contributions, then traditional media’s, and then similarities between the two.



1     If not for Twitter, the news media likely would have been even later on the Ferguson story than it already was.

Events that are newsworthy get missed in this era in which reporting is insufficiently funded. The Post-Dispatch is the St. Louis metropolitan region’s primary news organization, but, as is true in newsrooms nationwide, cuts in its editorial staff mean that the suburbs are covered less thoroughly than in years past. Particularly ignored are small, poor communities like Ferguson. Persistent black community concerns such as police harassment or unemployment don’t get media scrutiny until there is an event such as Brown’s shooting death. Day to day, news organizations rely more now than in the past on news releases and government meetings to drive the coverage of less-dominant communities. In St. Louis County, which has an astounding 91 municipalities, regular coverage of any community is impossible.

Enter social media, the police scanner of the modern newsroom. These days most reporters habitually check their Twitter feed via their smartphone app in the morning and throughout their workday (via twitter.com or google.com/trends) to see what’s trending—that is, what’s most popular now—in their interest area or geographic area. Trends are based on hashtags (introduced by the symbol #) that identify keywords or topics to allow users tweeting on the same issues to find one another.[2] Also these days, young black Americans often check in with Black Twitter, described by the Washington Post as “part cultural force, cudgel, entertainment and refuge” related to issues of interest to the black community.[3] Indeed, Twitter is a leveler for the races when it comes to communication: 22 percent of African Americans online use it, compared with 16 percent of whites, according to the Pew Research Internet Project.[4] “In contrast to internet use and broadband adoption, blacks and whites are equally likely to own a cell phone of some kind, and also have identical rates of smartphone ownership. Some 92 of black adults are cellphone owners, and 56 own a smartphone of some kind,” the report states.

The population of Ferguson is two-thirds black. When Brown was shot, residents tweeted the news. In addition, police in Ferguson were initially hostile to outside media coverage of their community, so Twitter in many ways became the quickest way for news and information to circulate. On August 10, the day after he was shot, “Mike Brown” was the leading trend on Google Trends. “Ferguson” generated more than a million searches on August 13, as the unrest continued. As David Carr of the New York Times wrote, “Twitter has become an early warning service for news organizations, a way to see into stories even when they don’t have significant reporting assets on the ground.”[5]


Michael Brown, Ferguson, graduation picture2    If not for Twitter, mainstream media would have continued to post a thuggish photo of a frowning, towering Michael Brown.

In this digital news age, when mainstream media editorial staffs awake to a story such as the Brown case, the coverage basics are fairly predictable: An image of the dead teenager is pulled from a social media site. (In an era of endless selfies, the images certainly are out there.) The news subject is branded. Think of Trayvon Martin in his hoodie—the same one that Geraldo Rivera stated was as much the cause of this black teenager’s death in Florida as was the white shooter, George Zimmerman.[6] With each news update the chosen image is perpetuated, increasing its psychic weight.

This phenomenon has been made abundantly clear by the hashtag campaign of #IfIWereGunnedDown, which has taken the mainstream media to task for its use of thuggish images of African Americans who have been shot—for example, Michael Brown. Each #IfIWereGunnedDown tweeter strategically juxtaposes portraits of himself or herself in both a good light (for example, straight-backed, smiling, clean shirt, family-portrait-like) and negative light (slouched on a sofa, wearing a T-shirt that’s too tight or too graphic, puffs of smoke circling, sexy dance move).

The layers of meaning in these simple side-by-side images demonstrate how powerful and pervasive news media images are, and why the Ferguson incident and too many others like it ignite so much emotion and anger among those siding with the victims. James Poniewozik of TIME magazine has written that #IfIWereGunnedDown has become a “simple, ingenious DIY form of media criticism” that “most likely lodged in the memory of editors and producers who make judgments every day.”[7] We hope so.

The #IfIWereGunnedDown creation forced news outlets to change the image of Brown from that of a thuggish teen to a serious student. For example, USA Today’s August 11 profile of Brown featured a single photo of him, in which he was unsmiling, looming tall, wearing a sleeveless Nike Air jersey, and flashing a sideways peace sign.[8] By the time of his funeral coverage on August 25, however, Brown’s image was routinely portrayed as smiling and clean cut, standing alongside family members or in his graduation cap and gown.[9]


3    If not for Twitter, the news media would have had a harder time connecting the dots on the protests held throughout the nation.

The legions of ongoing Ferguson-protest posts capture the person-on-the-street mindset, no matter if the street is in Berkeley, New York, Chicago, or a city near you. The protests call for many things, but most consistently for reforms in local policing and the U.S. justice system. Thanks to hashtags, the news media and police alike can discover the movements and protest planning underway in communities. A variety of hashtags provide ways for both protesters and news reporters to know what is going on both in real time and in the collective citizen mindset. Some examples: #WeCantBreathe, #ThisStopsToday, #JusticeforMikeBrown, #JusticeforEricGarner, #StolenLives, #WakeUpWhitePeople.

This cuts both ways, as the media can also be manipulated by the ease of hashtag activism that allows any Twitter user to suddenly become an activist organizer. Yet those activists are taking seriously the essential tools of technology. The Handsupunited.org site states it clearly:

The revolution will be digitized. Computer programming and web development are 21st century skills that can be used to activate ideas, grow small businesses and build grass-root movements. As a way to close the digital divide and address the issues of economic equality Hands Up United will lead technical training workshops to the Ferguson community. [Boldface in original.]


4    If not for Twitter, the demographic that is solidly Ferguson—black, low-income, and politically disengaged—would have had less of a voice.

Twitter isn’t robust enough to give a full, thorough portrait of an event. But it has an important role to play insofar as it gives an instant and insistent public voice to citizens whom the mainstream news media often ignores. In this sense, Twitter is like hip-hop. As the rapper, actor, and designer André 3000 said recently: “The repetition you hear in hip-hop is addiction. It feels good, so you wanna keep going it over and over and over again . . . Hip-hop is: Just keep that. Just keep that. Just keep that . . .”[10]

So, too, Twitter keeps insisting: “What about? What about? What about?” What about the police having so much military equipment and seemingly greater willingness to square off against communities trying to exert their First Amendment right to protest? What about the lopsided demographics of the Ferguson police force and of those in most other places nationwide? What about the poverty of the population in communities such as Ferguson? What about Ferguson as shorthand for moms wanting to raise kids in a safe neighborhood?



Let us now focus on the contributions of traditional media in a story such as Ferguson. We acknowledge the many challenges in covering something so complicated. As former professional journalists, we have covered our share of breaking news. One of us has flown in cold to cities she knew nothing about, only to file stories on deadline hours later. Finding the authentic voices of a community takes time and work. Local news reporters ideally develop a variety of sources in a community so that they are not overly reliant on “official” sources such as elected officials, police chiefs, superintendents, CEOs and the like. Yet, again, with news operations thinner than ever, no one has staff to do such reporting in the Fergusons of the world. Yes, Twitter can help connect hurried reporters to local sources so reporters are less dependent on news conference journalism.


BUT . . .


5    If not for the news media, the inaccuracy of Twitter would have been perpetuated time and again.

Twitter is not focused on accuracy. It is oriented to immediacy and emotion. The news media is the other way around. Say what you will about the tide of errors in the digital age (that’s another piece altogether), but the news media is focused on accuracy because its success is based on perceptions of credibility. Immediacy and emotion are secondary.

We concede that traditional media organizations are not perfect and that TV news too often still abides by “if it bleeds, it leads.” But when traditional media stories get something wrong, the company puts forth a correction that becomes part of the permanent record. (Rolling Stone’s recent journalistic negligence in not fully reporting the details of a sexual assault case at the University of Virginia still has many in the business shaking their heads.[11]) Twitter users may or may not fix their errors or have them corrected by others.

On the Ferguson story, for example, one Twitter user posted: “Protestors broke into McDonalds to get milk for tear gas victims.”[12] Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times provided a different scenario. He wrote from the scene that the crowd of protesters, fearing tear gas from police, smashed through the windows of the McDonald’s to get inside what became their haven from the mayhem. Pearce wrote that, “When a protester blasted with tear gas comes moaning through the door, there are bottles of soothing McDonald’s milk to pour onto his or her eyes.”[13]


Brown University’s Glenn C. Loury and John McWhorter, of TIME and Columbia University6    If not for the news media, Twitter’s enforced brevity would contribute to our contemporary tendency to think in distracted snippets, not in deeper arguments. (Hat tip to op-ed pieces and photojournalism.)

So far, on this story, the news media has provided provocative analysis and compelling images. A Twitter user has a cell phone, but a photojournalist has an actual camera and a trained eye. The November 25 editorial in the Post-Dispatch calling for the Department of Justice to act noted the power of the newsroom’s images throughout its coverage. The editorial began, aptly, this way: “The story of Ferguson has been told in pictures.” And the pictures draw us in to dwell on complex issues.

The opinion pieces and editorials, in a strange way, provide some comfort: someone has a handle on this situation. Someone seems to be able to identify all the parts and pieces. Someone, for right or wrong, has a vision of what to do next. Many commentaries are of note. Among these are Jeffrey Toobin’s short New Yorker rumination on the risk of using Ferguson as a metaphor; Sally Kohn’s Washington Post piece on what white people need to do now; and the Atlantic’s video-recorded conversation on policing, which featured Brown University’s Glenn C. Loury and John McWhorter, of TIME and Columbia. (The latter two men are pictured above.)


7    If not for the news media, Twitter would have less impact. How long posts will remain dependent on the URLs of news sites will likely be a future chapter in the evolution of social media.

This is a close neighbor to the above point, but it is more about profits and punditry. Nascent social media still need legacy news media to help set the conversational agenda. In the first days of the Ferguson coverage there were tens of thousands of Tweets linked to URLs of news stories.[14] For instance, a BBC article (“Ferguson Unrest: Egypt Urges US to Show Restraint”) was reportedly linked to 12,121 times during that period. That kind of linking has only continued. News reporters post on Twitter in part because Twitter drives traffic to their news stories. (More user traffic = more page hits on a news story = more digital advertising = more solvent news operations = fewer layoffs.)

Analysts call what we saw in Ferguson the “Broadcast Network.” This Pew Research Internet Project designation describes how a breaking news event spurs coverage from well-known outlets and their pundits, who of course tweet about their latest stories. In turn, Twitter users repeat what prominent sources had to say. The resulting hub-and-spoke structure means that these users “are often connected only to the hub news source, without connecting to one another.”[15]



For all their differences, traditional media and social media share some notable similarities on a story such as Ferguson.


8    Both users of Twitter and consumers of the news media fall prey to the niche orientation of the medium.

Twitter uses hashtags to categorize events and rally interested people around a cause. The news media uses branding to do the same by publication (The Economist, the Wall Street Journal) or a traditional broadcast network (Fox, MSNBC). In the hands of most Americans, the search for digital information is based on the premise of like-seeks-like, like-attracts-like, like-stays-with-like. Neither does much to diversify the news diet of consumers.


Ferguson Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch9    Both Twitter and the news media share the capacity for over-hype.

Initially, when describing what did or did not occur in the moments and days after Michael Brown’s shooting, and, later, in advance of the announcement on the grand jury’s decision by McCulloch (pictured at right), both Twitter and the news media exacerbated the tension. In a community already cracking under the pressure, it does not help to have journalists filling time by reporting on locals’ nervous anticipation and law enforcement’s preparations for violent protests. “Ferguson is on edge awaiting the release of the Michael Brown grand jury decision,” trumpeted one CNN report on November 24.[16] There were tweets such as “police are mobilizing in New York & Chicago to brace for the #Ferguson verdict. The country is waiting for an indictment. Think about that.”[17] With so many people across the country tuned in, who could avoid thinking about it, waiting for it, bracing for it.

In conclusion, this all matters because the different forms of media—be it social or more substantive—can make the other better. The ways in which either serves or fail to serves the public highlight their respective strengths and weaknesses. They are an unlikely team. One is run by a citizen democracy based on standards that run the gamut from serious to sassy. Despite its tonal range, or perhaps because of it, Twitter can organize unconnected people around a cause and provide a watchful, oftentimes critical, eye on moments both large and small. The other is run primarily by major media companies interested first in profits, but also in sense making and truth-telling.

The interplay between Twitter and the news media will continue on the Ferguson story because their joint services are still in high demand due to the ongoing protests. The coverage in social and news media regarding Brown’s death marks another phase in the maturation of social media to inform, mis-inform and, most significantly, democratize information by giving voice to those traditionally unheard by the news media. We anticipate that Twitter users will keep doing what they have done since its inception—innovating for their own present and pressing purposes. (Remember that retweets were not part of the original Twitter rollout; users came up with that handy practice.[18]) What the Twitter democracy will come up with next we can’t imagine, but we know the news media will be there to get educated—and to educate.


About the Authors

Sue Ellen Christian is an associate professor of journalism at Western Michigan University where she teaches news reporting and media literacy. She is a former staff reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Her book, Overcoming Bias: A Journalist’s Guide to Culture and Context, was published in 2012 by Holcomb Hathaway. With anthropologist Ann Miles she wrote Consent and Money: A dialogue on the ethical dilemmas in the reporting and writing of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which appeared in Zeteo’s Fall 2013 issue.

Herbert Lowe is a professional in residence and director of journalism for social change at the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He was a reporter for 22 years including at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Newsday in New York. He served as president of the National Association of Black Journalists from 2003 to 2005.



[1] Of note here is the following finding from the Pew People and the Press report “Press Widely Criticized but Trusted More Than Other Institutions” of September 22, 2011:

Despite the growth of Internet news, it is clear that television news outlets, specifically cable news outlets, are central to people’s impressions of the news media. When asked what first comes to mind when they think of news organizations, 63% volunteer the name of a cable news outlet, with CNN and Fox News by far the most prevalent in people’s minds. Only about a third (36%) name one of the broadcast networks. Fewer than one-in-five mention local news outlets and only 5% mention a national newspaper such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or USA Today. Just 3% name a website—either web-only or linked to a traditional news organization—when asked what comes to mind when they think of news organizations.

The authors of the present Zeteo piece, by virtue of their backgrounds in print news, are in the 5 percent who focus on national newspapers, and our news consumption during Ferguson has also reflected this.

[2] From Twitter: “How are Trends determined? Trends are determined by an algorithm and, by default, are tailored for you based on who you follow and your location. This algorithm identifies topics that are popular now, rather than topics that have been popular for a while or on a daily basis, to help you discover the hottest emerging topics of discussion on Twitter that matter most to you.” From faqs-about-trends-on-twitter; accessed December 2014.

[3] Soraya Nadia McDonald, “Black Twitter: A Virtual Community Ready to Hashtag out a Response to Cultural Issues,” Washington Post, January 20, 2014. Accessed via www.washingtonpost.com.

[4] Aaron Smith, “African-Americans and Technology Use,” Pew Research Internet Project, January. 6, 2014. Accessed via www.pewinternet.org.

[5] David Carr, “View of #Ferguson Thrust Michael Brown Shooting to National Attention,” New York Times, August 18, 2014. Accessed via www.nytimes.com.

[6] Katherine Fung, “Geraldo Rivera: Trayvon Martin’s ‘Hoodie Is as Much Responsible for Death as George Zimmerman’ (Video),” March 23, 2012. Accessed via www.huffingtonpost.com.

[7] James Poniewozik, “#IfTheyGunnedMeDown and What Hashtag Activism Does Right,” Time.com, August 11, 2014. Accessed via http://time.com.

[9] “Mourners Remember Michael Brown in St Louis,” USA Today, August 26, 2014. Accessed via www.usatoday.com.

[10] Cal Fussman, “André 3000: What I’ve Learned,” Esquire, August 27, 2014. Accessed via www.esquire.com.

[11] Erik Wemple, “The Full Demise of Rolling Stone’s Rape Story,” Washington Post, December 11, 2014. Accessed via www.washingtonpost.com.

[12] Shaun King, Twitter post, August 18, 2014, 12:07 a.m. https://twitter.com/ShaunKing.

[13] Matt Pearce, “Ferguson McDonald’s a Haven amid Protests and Tear Gas,” Los Angeles Times, August 21, 2014. Accessed via www.latimes.com. For a full news story about the inaccurate accounts on Twitter regarding Ferguson, see: Nick Bilton, “Ferguson Reveals a Twitter Loop,” New York Times, August 27, 2014. Accessed via www.nyt.com.

[14] “URLs in Tweets Mentioning Ferguson: August 10-27, 2014.” Accessed via https://edsu.github.io/ferguson-urls/.

[15] Mark A. Smith, Lee Rainie, Ben Shneiderman, Itai Himelboim, “Part 2: Conversational Archetypes: Six Conversation and Group Network Structures in Twitter,” Pew Research Internet Project, February 20, 2014. Accessed via www.pewinternet.org.

[16] Jason Carroll, “Ferguson Waits for Grand Jury Decision,” CNN: The Situation Room, November 24, 2014. Accessed via www.cnn.com.

[17] Drew Schnoebelen (Dschnoeb), Twitter post, November 24, 2014, 7:32 p.m., https://twitter.com/dschnoeb.

[18] Zachary M. Seward, “The First-Ever Hashtag, @-Reply and Retweet, as Twitter Users Invented Them,” Quartz, October15, 2013. Accessed via http://qz.com.


  1. Pingback: Ferguson, Journalism, Twitter [Sue Ellen Christian & Herbert Lowe]

  2. Pingback: Pinnacle of White Privilege: Covington Catholic Boys cleared of wrongdoing. – PoliU

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