Ferguson – The Search for Reliability

In two instances during class, the events that occured in Ferguson, Missouri came to my mind. The first time was during the guest lecture by Monique Hamers, where the case of Tamir Rice was being discussed. This 12 year old kid was shot by a police officer, after it had been reported that he had been brandishing a “probably fake” gun at people in the park. One of the questions Monique asked us was to put the story into a bigger context, and I couldn’t help but think of Ferguson and the unrest that has been there ever since the death of Michael Brown. The second instance where I thought of Ferguson during class, was during the guest lecture by Carel van Wijk. He was discussing reliability within the media, and immediately this case popped up in my head. For two reasons: it is an interesting example of framing within the US media, for instance the pictures used in the media:

Compared to:

The second reason is because it is a case that I often encounter on social media, whether it is Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr. So many tweets and posts pass me by, that it is literally overwhelming to get a clear view on the case. 99% of the tweets or posts that I read are filled with outrage. And it’s understandable, as an unarmed African-American man was killed by a white police officer. Especially in America this was bound to be a sensitive case, considering it is not the first time an incident like this happened. For this blog post I want to take a closer look at the Ferguson case, and see if there is a way to get the facts straight. As this is a case that relies on eye witnesses as well, I wonder if it will ever be possible to get an entirely reliable and clear story out of this.

Timeline of events

The Washington Post made a reconstruction of what happened during the shooting of Michael Brown. It should be noted that this timeline is the prosecutor’s version of the events based on witnesses and the gathered evidence. According to him, Michael Brown and a friend were walking down the middle of the street when the police officer that happened to drive past them (Darren Wilson) told them to move to the sidewalk. The pair continued down the road, at which point Wilson backed his car and blocked the path of Brown and his friend. A ‘tussle’ ensues, though witnesses report different things. Some state that Wilson aggressively approached Brown and his friend and that’s what started an argument, others state that Brown was aggressive towards Wilson. Wilson himself stated that Brown was punching him, which made him pull out his weapon and fire a shot, hitting Brown. This caused Brown and his friend to flee. Some witnesses say Wilson was shooting at Brown as he was running away. Brown then stopped and turned around; some say with his hands up, some say he raised them briefly, some say he walked/stumbled towards Wilson, and others stated that he charged at Wilson. It goes to show how the memory of an eyewitness can be foggy, or how eyewitnesses can be unreliable. As Brown is moving towards Wilson, Wilson fires his gun at Brown.

Physical evidence

Seven or eight bullets had hit Brown, according to autopsy. Three of the bullets had hit Brown while he was either falling or bent at the waist, including the fatal shot to the top of his head. In total, 12 shots were fired. According to DNA analysis, Michael Brown’s blood was on the police officer’s car, and inside it as well (via NPR). That link also contains a picture of Darren Wilson during his medical examination, where a bruise can be seen. This seems to confirm, at the very least, that a confrontation had taken place.


In his guest lecture, Carel van Wijk mentioned four types of reliability regarding the media that I will relate to this case:

  1. Reliability of information: because this case relies heavily on eyewitnesses, there are very few facts. Most come from the autopsy. What I personally find weird, is the fact that three bullets had hit Brown while falling/being bent over. It seems like the police officer was just firing blindly at this point, with no intent to only neutralize his target in such a way that he could was incapacitated. However, the bruise on Darren Wilson’s cheek does imply that Michael Brown had punched him.
  2. Reliability of wordings: this is related to framing. This can be related to the testimonies by the eyewitnesses. For instance, one of the eyewitnesses called the death of Michael Brown an execution, while another states that Brown was ‘charging’ towards Wilson. Of course, it can also be related to the Wilson’s testimony. For instance, he says that “And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.”, which is odd considering that Brown was only an inch taller than Wilson, though heavier. The wording is intended to make Brown seem like a giant and posits Wilson as a helpless creature. Another sentence that stood out to me was something that happened after Wilson had shot at Brown from inside the car: “..had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked. He comes back towards me again with his hands up.”.
  3. Reliability of sources: the eyewitnesses telling different stories.
  4. Reliability of visualizations: the two picture example I used above.


This is a case that relies so heavily on interpretation that it also is an example of how, as a journalist, you might seek reliability but can find very little of it. So much relies on eyewitnesses that it is hard to draw a conclusion. Nevertheless, a man died due to a police officer, and I would think that this fact alone should be enough for there to be a trial. Yes, a police officer is allowed to protect himself according to the law, but how far is this allowed to go? Is it relevant that the prosecutor, Robert P. McCulloch, has a close relationship with the police force because his father, brother, nephew and cousin were police officers and that this was the fifth time Robert McCulloch presented evidence to a grand jury in a shooting by police and that in each case the grand jury came back without an indictment (via stltoday and Washington Post)? Is that framing by the media or are they pointing out a bias that the prosecutor might have and that could influence the case? You can’t say for certain, and perhaps that is why the grand jury made the conclusion that they made: there was not enough evidence. A very unsatisfying conclusion perhaps, and considering other similar cases such as Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin, a controversial one. But that seems to be the conclusion, that there is no definitive conclusion.


As a matter of fact…

One element discussed by Monique Hamers in her guest lecture was fact checking as a means of public engagement and empowerment. This is related to the shift, thanks to the rise of the internet and prevalence of social media, from ‘news as a lecture’ to ‘news as a conversation’. News ‘consumers’ used to just receive news with very little means of engaging and interacting with it. As a reader/viewer, you were dependant on the news outlet for the agenda, and you had to rely on the expertise of the journalist in question. You would hope that they verified their facts properly, as you relied on them. Any error on their part could become an error on your part. Misinformation could be spread easily, with fewer outlets that could counter these false rumors. Especially during times of uncertainty and anxiety, which often lead to more rumors in the first place, certainty is a gift. Being able to rely on an outlet to provide you with the verified facts is gold in those times.

Thanks to the rise of social media, it is easier for people to engage and interact with news. Like a wine glass, stories can be polished until all the stains have been removed; the story is clean, fact-checked and verified. Of course, this is the ideal. Whether it is always a realistic goal remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the prospect of journalism and the people informing each other is promising. Journalists can be called out on factual errors and vice versa, and facts and statistics requiring interpretation can be discussed and challenged by anyone.

Using two examples from the social media site Reddit, I want to illustrate how interacting with news can both be positive and negative. But before I get to the examples, I would like to discuss a theory that might be applicable to this situation: wisdom of the crowd. In its original form, wisdom of the crowd is a statistical phenomenon. For example, you have a bowl full of M & M’s and you would ask a 1000 people how many M & M’s the bowl contains. You would get a diverse set of estimates, ranging from very low to very high ones. However, because of this diversity the average of the estimates is usually remarkably close to the actual amount of M &M’s within the bowl. The crowd, as a whole, knows more than the individual (Surowiecki, 2005). Of course, with regards to ‘news as a conversation’ it takes on a different meaning, one that is more related to the metaphor of the polishing of the wine glass. The crowd can add to a story until it is distilled to its essence. Whether that is the best, most-factual story or just the consensus of a group is a different discussion altogether.

The first, positive example coming from Reddit with regards to wisdom of the crowd comes out of a discussion that was going on regarding Ferguson (which can be found right here). In the comments, one user claimed that a Harvard study had concluded that black people committed more violent crimes and were a subculture of violence. Technically, it was true that this had been a sentence in the article. However, another user pointed out that following this sentence were about 25 pages refuting this idea and claiming that it was a gross oversimplification. This is an example of the crowd coming through, refuting an idea that was an oversimplification and a misrepresentation of the quoted article.

However, it can go wrong as well: Reddit and the Boston Marathon Bombing. I have discussed this incident in my first blog post, but I believe that it is relevant for this topic as well. After the bombing, a subsection of Reddit was created that would help the investigation. The FBI had crowdsourced the investigation in a sense, as they were asking for pictures and videos from the crowd. Most of these were posted online as well, hence the community could use them as well. Though rules were set up by the moderator, such as not posting personal information online, these rules were neglected quickly after the users thought they were getting closer to actual suspect. However, the real perpetrators never showed up on their radar. And their ‘investigation’ often looked like this:

Racial profiling and accusations based on nothing were abound. This led to the community coming forward with two suspects, one of whom was Sunil Tripathi. A tweet had been send out (later removed) where it was stated that his name had popped up on the Boston police chatter. He had also been missing, which was interpreted as suspicious as well. As it turned out, he was missing because he had committed suicide. He was not related to the Boston Marathon bombing at all.

This is an example where wisdom of the crowd turned into stupidity of the hivemind. The small subsection of Reddit mostly seemed to have one goal: proving journalists and the FBI that they were better. Because of the voting system Reddit uses, many posts questioning the statements made by some of the users were being downvoted, while every piece of ‘evidence’ was being upvoted. The community was blinded by their end goal, and their confirmation biases influenced their perceptions of the evidence. Leading to false accusation and the FBI having to release their info on the actual suspects earlier than was needed. It had real-life consequences.

Nevertheless, I do think that the concept of Open Journalism is a potential exciting and interesting way to get to the facts. However, in order for it to work you would need some ground rules and a certain ‘crowd’ to get to wisdom in the first place. Monique Hamers named 10 essential points for Open Journalism:

  1. It encourages participation. It invites and/or allows a response.
  2. It is not an inert ‘us’ to ‘them’ form of publishing.
  3. It encourages debate, where we can both lead and follow.
  4. It helps form communities of joint interests around subjects, interests and individuals.
  5. It’s open to the web. It links to, and collaborates with, other material on the web.
  6. It aggregates and/or curates the work of others.
  7. It recognizes that journalists are not the only voices of authority, expertise and interest.
  8. It aspires to achieve, and reflect, diversity as well as promoting shared values.
  9. It recognizes that publishing can be the beginning of the journalist process, instead of the end.
  10. It is transparent and upon to challenge – including correction, clarification and addition.

Diversity is essential. As with the statistical phenomenon that is wisdom of the crowd, where more diverse estimates lead to a mean that is closer to the actual number, diversity ensures that more statements are being questioned and more factual errors are being pointed out. Points 4 and 8 are thus needed together in order to have a more functional community. At the same time, it would have less of an ‘us vs. them’ mentality, as that seemed to be another flaw in the Reddit subsection (them being the journalists and the FBI as the establishment against which to rebel against). Relating to point 6, the statements by the Reddit users were aggregated but in the wrong way, leading to misinformation assumed to be fact. It was only in so far open to challenge in that criticism was being cast aside, downvoted.

However, this bad example shouldn’t make you want to dismiss Open Journalism altogether. This ground rules, coupled with strong moderation in online communities, should be able to lead interesting additions. And of course, there are already fact-checking communities that lead to results. But with some additions, simple internet forums can avoid misinformation and be useful to the process as well.


Surowiecki, J. (2005). The Wisdom of Crowds. New York: Doubleday.