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.

Reliability

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.

Conclusion

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.

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4 gedachtes over “Ferguson – The Search for Reliability

  1. Personally, I do not like stories with open endings, but in life, we must learn how to deal with them. You described very well the lack of reliability found in each party that might shed a different perspective on the story of Michael Brown. Whether it’s the information, source, wordings or visualizations, they might all confirm misleading images or bias. But when I read the article of NPR, I don’t really see a bruise on the picture of the police officer. It’s just a red mark on his cheek, while Wilson shot this armless 18-year-old in a police car. 12 frickin’ times! Is that still self-defense? I beg to differ. It might only confirm my bias, because everyone sees different things in practically the same picture or piece of text. Same goes for the eye-witnesses, because whether they see different things or tell different things, they do not contribute to the accuracy or reliability of information. I believe that the autopsy of Michael Brown and further investigation on the scene of the crime might provide more information on what actually happened. But does it matter? They did not have a trial for this, right? So even if they found more evidence from the autopsy or investigation to prove that Wilson is guilty, will they do anything about it? I agree with everything you mentioned in this blogpost. I have no definite conclusion about this either, as there is none to be found, because the perspectives are endless and one gets lost in the crowd when searching for reliability. A very well written piece for a case that pretty much applies to the concepts we are taught in this course. I enjoyed reading it as I did enjoy reading all your blogposts. Great work!

    Liked by 1 persoon

  2. You really chose a good case, because like you said it relies on so many different views that you don’t know who to trust. It could be that the eye-witnesses had a foggy memory or were they biased as well? Maybe some of them were a bit racist and lied about what they saw, or even thought they really saw what they said (you still get it? haha). Good job taking the side of the victim, because that is what we as journalists are supposed to do, right? 😉 No but, reading your post I get a bit angry. Why was there no case? Like Fitria said, he had been shot 12 freaking times?? Come on, that is just to be really sure he is dead, right? There is certainly something fishy about this case and I hope they will reopen it in the future. Good example of how journalism relies on sources, who are not always that reliable, enjoyed reading it!

    Liked by 1 persoon

  3. Nice post men! Your second picture isn’t working :(.. You immediately catch my attention when you mentioned the ‘Ferguson case’! Men 12 shots were fired in total?! As Jim Carrey stated in Dumb and Dumber to: “That’s’ Insane!!”. No, but seriously, why should he fire 12 times while the boy was holding a fake gun! He punched him, that is not a reason to shoot somebody right? Maybe ones to stop him from running.. As you mentioned as well, I have a lot of questions regarding this tragic ‘accident’. Do you know if there are any incidents like this with a ‘white’ person? Because if that trail differ from this one, I totally understand the ‘black’ population! Good job!

    Liked by 1 persoon

  4. Nice post! I think the case of Michael Brown is very proper to talk about reliability. I think it is hard to know when something is truth in cases like Eric Garner, Tamir Race or Michael Brown. Without documents such as pictures or videos there is not very much reliable information because as you say eyewitness have foggy memories. I liked the fact-checking process you did, understanding Carel van Wijk’s theory trough the presented case.

    Liked by 1 persoon

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