Ferguson: Where are the Angels of the US Media?

Published: 27 August 2014

Country: USA

ferguson_finalNo angel. This was how the New York Times described Michael Brown, the 18-year-old boy who was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in a feature article, posted the same day of his funeral.

The article caused reactions from several mainstream and independent media outlets as well as from bloggers and online users. These reactions stated that the description of the Times is exactly what the media should avoid when covering the Black youth community.

“Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life. Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol”, reported the New York Times.

Vanity Fair gathered all the cases in which the Times referred to someone as “no angel”. “A sample of the white folks the Times has called “no angel” includes infamous mobsters, murderers, a pornographer, and a Nazi. Black Americans described similarly by the paper include a basketball player, a singer, criminal suspects, and unarmed men killed by white people.”

“A large number of American teenagers live exactly like Michael Brown but very few of them are shot in the head and left to bake on the pavement,” wrote the reporter of The Atlantic.

The New York Times has also been accused of double standards regarding the portrayal of Michael Brown and the police officer who shot him. “The Times inadvertently captures the depressing double standard between how white and Black Americans are often portrayed; White offenders, regardless of their circumstances, are often portrayed as individuals with promise and potential who somehow, somewhere, took a wrong turn. In contrast, Black Americans are born already on parole, destined for a life of criminality and destitution.”

The author of the Times article about Brown said the newspaper wanted to tell the story of who he (Brown) was, the deeper story, while he admitted that the phrase “no angel” was not a good choice of words.

Racial profiling is not a new phenomenon in the world of media. For many years, journalists, researchers and academics have been trying to draw attention to the unfair representation of Black African Americans, especially young males, by the media in the USA.

“The violent black man as a drug-dealing criminal and gangster thug – this was one of the dominant stereotypes that the media and film industry reproduce,” Professor Darron T. Smith wrote a year ago for the Huffington Post.

The coverage of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson was no exception to this rule. After the death of Brown, the media used one of his photos showing him wearing rapper-style clothes and having his fingers extended, which some have considered as a “gang sign.” In response, many black men and women tweeted two photos of themselves side-by-side — one image depicting the user as an upstanding or everyday citizen, and another showing the user as stereotypically thuggish, wondering #iftheygunnedmedown, which picture would the media use.

The movement immediately became very popular with numerous users, not only from the USA but also from Europe and Australia,  posting their photos online. In an article entitled the “6 Reasons Why America Must Stop Ignoring Its Black Youth” by Mic, the author refers to the negative depiction of the young Black people by the media focusing on three points; they are routinely misrepresented in mainstream media coverage, they rarely get media attention unless they commit a crime or are killed, their issues are being discussed by adults who do not have an insider’s perspective. The author, Derrick Clifton, who specialises in identity issues, writes, “According to various reports, 64,000 black women, many of them young, are currently missing in the United States. These women rarely, if ever, get any media coverage […]When a young black person is killed by a stray bullet or gun violence, however, news cameras are much more likely to follow.”

Deeper analysis and thoughtful coverage of the problems of the community in Ferguson, which include the underrpresentation of the Black community in local councils and in the police force as well as poverty and racism, have occured only now that the massive protests continue in the region. “Many African Americans in the city say part of the problem is that no one is listening to them. They describe themselves as virtually invisible other than to be viewed as a problem,” writes the Guardian in the report about the Ferguson community.