By Senior Editor James Kelly
April 6, 2016
Editor’s Note: The research and interviewing for this article was wrapped up a few days before the 2015 spring semester ended. Soon after it was published, the WORD experienced a catastrophic failure and years of stories and pictures were lost. The Editor is republishing this article and many others.
In the wake of the shooting and death of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, August 9, 2015, reports of the nonviolent protests and the sacking of local businesses were reported around the world. “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and “Black lives matter” seemed to become anthems of a new movement for justice.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) conducted an investigation of the death of Michael Brown as well as one of the Ferguson Police Department (FPD). The DOJ released a 105-page report on the investigation of the FPD on March 4, 2015, nearly eight months after the death of Brown. The report reveals startling facts about the injustices in Ferguson, such as that the FPD fulfilled revenue quotas set by the city’s Municipal Court “with insufficient thought given to whether enforcement strategies promote public safety or unnecessarily undermine community trust and cooperation.”
The report states that many officers viewed residents of Ferguson, especially those in African American communities, “less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.”
The report also revealed that “African Americans account for 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations, and 93 percent of arrests made by FPD officers, despite comprising only 67 percent of Ferguson’s population.” As if that wasn’t enough to expose injustice, the report also states, “Nearly 90 percent of documented force used by FPD officers was used against African Americans,” and, more horrifically, “In every canine bite incident for which racial information is available, the person bitten was African American.”
Multitudinous news sources covered this DOJ report in a variety of ways. CNN reported, “Justice report finds systematic discrimination against African-Americans in Ferguson” and, to its credit, also posted the full DOJ report. FOX News did publish an article headlined, “Justice Department to probe Ferguson Police Department” but failed to report on what the Justice Department’s findings were as well as provide in depth coverage of the DOJ report.
The New York Times covered the DOJ’s findings extensively and published articles, headlines, “Ferguson Police Routinely Violate Rights of Blacks, Justice Dept. Finds” and “Ferguson Police Tainted by Bias, Justice Department Says.”
What Say Hunter Students?
Student journalists from MEDP 201: Reporting and Writing, an introductory news writing class that requires students to publish stories at hunterword.com, spread out on the Hunter campus for interviews to try to assess student sentiment about the news media coverage of the DOJ report, the protests sparked by the Michael Brown shooting, and racial discrimination in the United States. The main campus for undergraduate students is located at 68th Street and Lexington Avenue, on the city’s east side, and according to Hunter stats, the College has more than 16,707 undergraduate students as of 2012.
“I think the coverage was generally objective” said Stephanie Loucas, 19, a media studies major who minored in psychology a, from Pound Ridge, New York, “but as it got closer to the trial and the whole riot, it became really biased.” She, it’s safe to assume, was referring to the grand jury proceedings and the sacking and burning of neighborhood businesses.
Loucas, wearing black combat boots, grey jeans, and a black cardigan over a white long sleeve shirt at her interview in room 518 of Thomas Hunter Hall, got her information about Ferguson from news channels like ABC, CNN, and FOX news, as well as the New York Times. Loucas also said that the media’s emphasis on the riots had influenced the Darren Wilson grand jury investigation which found that Wilson had not violated laws. The DOJ investigation also reached the same finding.
Loucas said that the “riots” in Ferguson were “completely unjustified, out of hand, and radical.” She said that by rioting, the protesters in Ferguson handled the situation in “the least practical way they could have fought for their beliefs.” She didn’t distinguish between protestors and those in the crowds attacking stores. In fact, it took awhile for the mainstream news media to distinguish between protestors and those engaging in criminal actions. However, Loucas did admit that racism is a reality in America.
She said racial profiling could be eliminated within the Ferguson Police Department. Her explanation for that opinion was, “People sometimes don’t even realize how racist they are” until they are forced to deal with a situation, such as the investigations and news new stories about the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. She said that racial profilings were automatic and habitual reactions “that people don’t recognize in themselves.”
“How can you stop something when you don’t acknowledge that it’s how you truly feel” she said.
Joel Perez-Romano, 19, of Bushwick, Brooklyn, a political science major with a double minor in Arabic and human rights, said that he believed “liberal news outlets definitely defend minorities whereas more conservative outlets make the community look like aggressors.” Perez-Romano admitted that he was not well verse in current events but said that he was aware that the Ferguson police were mistreating the community. He also said that the coverage on Ferguson infuriated him because “that could have been me in Ferguson being treated differently because of my skin color.”
Sheila Conde, 20, a psychology major from an area near Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, said she believed that television news reporting wasn’t as good as the reporting on the Internet. Television news “would say there’s corruption but they weren’t really specific as to who was doing what,” but on the Internet “everything came to light, everything,” she said.
In the third floor hallway of Hunter East, near the lockers, Conde said that the news on the Internet gave “specific names, the history.” She said that on the Internet “people who were actually from Ferguson were speaking out and explaining how they were discriminated against.” Conde said she preferred online news coverage to TV news because on television “they like to censor your opinion, unfortunately.”
Conde said she was not really surprised by the DOJ findings. “Considering how Ferguson was going for the past couple months,” she said, “it wasn’t really surprising to see that the police department was just corrupt.” She then expressed disgust with the FPD because the police are “supposed to help people but then they go around discriminating against different races and being really ignorant.”
Conde said that she saw the media coverage of the DOJ report for “a couple of weeks” and said that the news media “should have reported on it more, because the more they report on it, the more information we get.” She said that three weeks of news coverage “is nothing.”
Janelle Broome, 21, a computer science major who lives on Long Island, said she monitored live broadcasts of the protests in Ferguson through twitter. She said that “media coverage will always be bias.” Speaking about the media coverage of Ferguson, Broome said, “They were treating systematic racism as something of shock value and demeaning the participants of it.” Broome said that she felt media outlets are biased in regards to race issues because “at the end of the day their goal is to sell, sell, sell.”
Broome continued, saying “every neighborhood is essentially a little Ferguson,” meaning that “systematic racism should be addressed everywhere, not just Ferguson.” While the news media, in her opinion, may have portrayed the situation in Ferguson to be unique in this country, Broome said that “proper media coverage should encourage the spreading of ideas on how things worldwide relate to you.”
Brienna Joseph, 19, of Bay Shore, Long Island, wore a grey sweatshirt, ripped jeans, beige combat boots, and a variety of rings at her interview in the cafeteria on the third floor of Hunter West. Joseph, who has not yet decided her major, learned about the situation in Ferguson through “news sources like FOX, and CNN.” However, she said, her primary source of information was Tumblr.
Joseph said that the police are a “social institution with a lot of issues.” She said that the police “hold a lot of power and with power comes irresponsibility.” In Joseph’s opinion, racial profiling is not just an issue in the FPD, it exists “in all police departments.” She said that eliminating racial profiling within police departments is an arduous task because “so many of us are socialized towards racists.” But despite this, Joseph said that it is an issue society needs to address. She also said, “there’s even racism within races.”
As a comparison, Joseph brought up the death of Eric Garner at the hands of an NYPD officer in Staten Island. Joseph said, “Ferguson said they needed cameras to remain objective, but I think New York made it clear that the cameras didn’t help” because no NYPD officer was indicted in the death of Garner though his death was digitally recorded on a witness’ cell-phone.
This YouTube Video May Be Too Graphic for Some
As for solutions to racism in this country, Joseph said that “the idea of race is a big issue and the idea is something that is taught to us.” She said that this issue spreads through generations and, in order to eliminate it, not only the media needs to change, but text books do also. “This social institution called race can’t change overnight,” she said.
May Ben, 31, of Manhattan, watched the coverage of the Ferguson protests on Spanish news channels but was unaware the DOJ’s findings. From the coverage that she did see, Ben said she believed the news media sensationalized a lot of things,” and that “they focused more on people’s opinions rather than facts.” After being informed of some facts and statistics in the DOJ report, Ben said, “There’s a lot of racial bias, that’s why the numbers are the way they are. The numbers are probably even higher than what they’re telling us.”
In her blue tank top, gray sweater, and blue jeans, Ben said that she didn’t watch too much media coverage because, according to her, it was “all bullshit.” She said that it is difficult to find an accurate story in broadcast news reporting because different news channels focus on different perspectives. “I would see some networks say that Ferguson was the fault of the people and other networks say that the system is just messed up, some would focus on race and other would focus on police practices,” she said.
Ben’s opinion: The DOJ’s findings were “definitely a reflection of society,” and not just what is happening in Ferguson. She said that she hoped the DOJ report will “cause some change in general.” However, she said she did not believe the media did a good job of covering the DOJ report. The media, she said, “probably knew those facts before the report came out, or at least had an idea of the numbers, but they just skew it.”
Ben also said that, although the statistics revealed by the DOJ report seem to come as a shock to the country, “the police know what they’re doing” and “captains know what’s going on. They know what’s happening more than we think they do.” In the final moments of the interview, Ben said that those in charge of the police might be in control of the media. “There’s too many cases like Ferguson for them not to know what’s going on,” she said.
David Parsard, 19, of Canarsie Brooklyn, also said that the media’s weak coverage of the DOJ report was a result of certain biases. A Spanish major, Parsard said that a report condemning racial profiling may have gone against the biases of certain media “so they would not report on it.” However, in his opinion, on a situation like the DOJ report of the Ferguson police department, “any information about it is good to be publically known, whether it’s good or bad.”
In Parsard’s own personal experience, not just Ferguson, but police departments in general “really racially profile.” He added that racially profiling is a “common thing.”
After being informed about the DOJ report, Raymon Xie, 20, said that he believed the findings, “especially the revenue part.” Xie, wearing a Yankees hoodie, jeans, and blue Nike sneakers on the second floor of the Hunter West building, said, “I really do believe that the police focus only on revenue and simply getting their job done rather than public safety.”
To Xie, a resident of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the media coverage of Ferguson “emphasizes injustices and the inequality of races.” According to him, the media emphasizes that “cops treat different races in different ways, and sometimes that way is unequal.” The effect of this type of coverage, according to Xie, showed that “racism (in Ferguson) definitely played a role and that it caused an outrage to the general public.”
Xie, who said he received his news from CBS, CNN, and ABC, noticed that the coverage of each channel was different. He said “channels had their own bias based on the views that each station supports.” When it came to different new channels across the country, Xie said that he believed people in different states receive different news. “It depends on the audience that’s watching from each state,” he said, “especially if the audience is primarily colored or not.”
Ali Hassan, 19, a biochemistry major with a concentration in bio-genetics, said that he received most of his news on Ferguson from CNN. “I did my research, too, about racial bias,” he said, “and I don’t think CNN covered that.” In Hassan’s opinion, the media coverage of the DOJ report was biased. He said that more liberal channels leaned in favor of Michael Brown’s family while more conservative channels supported the FPD. “At least that’s what I saw,” he said.
Hassan, who lives in Radnor, Queens, said that he researched information from scholarly articles, EPSCO databases, and official research papers, for a school paper. He said he noticed a pattern of bias in the U.S. justice system, for example, that every time a racial bias is exposed by the justice system, the media ignores system and institutional variables. They treat the situation as if “it’s that case by itself,” he said. “They never connect the dots.”
Racial bias in the media and in the justice system, Hassan said, has been “persisting throughout history.” He said that “it’s either just getting worse or getting more coverage because it’s always been there.”
Regarding systemic racism in Ferguson, Ricardo Alvarez, 18, a biology major from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, said that “the media isn’t covering the situation as thoroughly as they should.” Alvarez also said that each news network has a different bias. “FOX News is classic for showing a story and making it really biased and manipulating a situation to support their assertions,” he said.
In her interview on the seventh floor skybridge, Natalia Szech, 18, from Queens, said that she believed Ferguson police use their authority to collect revenue instead of providing for the protection of people and that similarities exist in her police departments. “Even my dad got pulled over for a BS reason” she said, “and we both believe that the policeman was just trying to reach his quota for the day.”
As for the media, Szech, who wore a black crop-top, light blue jeans, and boots, said that slhe believed that most outlets are “definitely racist.” She said that the media focuses more on crimes committed by people of color.
“Now because of that,” she said, “cops are taking more precaution on colored people.” In Szech’s opinion, this bias coverage is meant to “evoke outrage in people.” Szech said that if a situation like the one in Ferguson were occur in New York City, the media would cover it in a way so that people wouldn’t “know the full truth still or even if the cop was racist or not.”
Adel Manoukian, 21, wore a red sweater, jeans, and a purple ribbon in her hair at her interview in a study room on the sixth floor of the Hunter Library. Manoukian, who double majors in women’s gender studies and media studies, said that she believed that the DOJ report “definitely should have been covered more” by the media. She said media outlets such as CNN or FOX news will distort stories to support their political views, and so she was “more open to looking at blogs because they’re so accessible.” She said hat blogs were “more inclusive of different types of people, not just like whatever the mainstream feeds us.”
Reports of racial profiling and abuse of power within the FPD made her reflect on how she sees her friends and family “getting policed.” While Manoukian has never been racially profiled herself, she said she has been harassed by cops. “They’ve said sexist things to me,” she said, “but what can I do about it?” While she admitted that she cannot compare her experiences with the situation in Ferguson, Manoukian said it was still “just another horrible example of bodies being policed.”
Miguel Veras, Omarr Maxime
Miguel Veras, 19, was interviewed in the Hunter cafeteria on the third floor of the West Building. Wearing a grey hoodie, black sweatpants, champion sneakers, and a black jansport backpack, Veras said that he received his news from channel 11 or CNN, “Basically anything but FOX.” He said that many news channels “do things for ratings so it’s hard to get a good grasp of what’s actually going on.” However, in Veras’ opinion, “CNN showed a little more of both sides of the argument.”
Veras, a computer science major, said that, not just in Ferguson, but in general “there seems to be a lot of cops being released for such instances with racial profiling.” Veras said that he supported the protesters in Ferguson but “once it reaches violence it’s gone too far and they need to find an alternate way to resolve their issues.” He was referring to the crowds that attacked Ferguson businesses and the reporter who interviewed him didn’t get him to distinguish between that crowd and the protestors. However, in Veras’ opinion, “If a police officer commits an act of racism, his or her badge should be stripped from them immediately.”
Omarr Maxime, 19, of Queens, said that he received his news from ABC but that the coverage on each channel was different. “FOX is definitely biased,” he said. In Maxime’s opinion, the media portrayed the FPD as simply arresting people instead of “analyzing the situation and focusing on public safety.” Maxime, who wore a winter jackets over a blue hoodie and jeans, said that if the racial identites were switched in the Michael Brown case, and it were a black officer who killed a white kid, “the media coverage would be 100 percent different.”
He said that the media wouldn’t have hyped up the outrage and violence as much as it did. “The media makes us blacks look crazy,” he said. “They only focus on the violence and protests that Ferguson caused.”
Eventually, according to Maxime, the media’s focus on the protests and violence “just makes matters worse.” He said that this sensationalist coverage of the protests and violence in Ferguson perpetuates violent behavior. “And honestly,” he said, “it just needs to end. This all needs to end.”
The media’s coverage of Ferguson has cooled and the Ferguson Police Department, under pressure and based on the DOJ reporting, sets off on a path to resolve the corruption, while new crises erupt in other areas of the country.
According to students interviewed for this special project, racism is still a very big issue in our country. Police departments are expected to keep communities safe and the media is supposed to keep a watch on injustices done by institutions of authority. However, not only did the FPD display racism in their treatment of the resident of Ferguson, but media outlets also displayed bias, according to the students interviewed, by portraying the events in Ferguson in a way that pushed their own agendas.
It seems that police departments across the country, and not just in Ferguson, as well as the media, are not fulfilling their responsibilities.
Jimmy Kelly can be reached at James.firstname.lastname@example.org