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:
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.”.
- Reliability of sources: the eyewitnesses telling different stories.
- 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.