What challenges do breaking news scenes—especially ones as fast moving and chaotic as Ferguson—present to journalists and consumers of information? In this lesson, students review news accounts about the killing of Michael Brown from the initial days following the shooting to get a sense of the ways that complex stories unfold over time. The journalists in the featured video help to illuminate the idea that it is not only extremely challenging for consumers to sort fact from fiction during a breaking news story, especially one that elicits such strong emotional reactions, it is also challenging—and at times impossible—for journalists to do so.
Note: As this lesson begins to focus on actual accounts from Ferguson, you may want to acknowledge that this content can be emotional and challenging; consider revisiting the classroom contract and earlier discussions about the DJ Jay Smooth video.
On August 9, 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by 28-year-old Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. The news broke on Twitter. Moments after the shooting, @TheePharoah tweeted, “I JUST SAW SOMEONE DIE OMFG.” Several minutes later, he tweeted a picture of two police officers standing next to Brown’s lifeless body lying facedown in the street. An hour after the shooting, a crew from St. Louis television station KMOV arrived on the scene ahead of Ferguson police detectives. Later that afternoon, the story had begun to go viral on the Internet, large crowds had gathered at the crime scene, and a spontaneous memorial began to take shape.
Prompted in part by the attention the shooting was receiving on social media and in part by the community reaction, local journalists began closely covering the situation. National news outlets soon sent reporters to Ferguson as well. Within three days, Ferguson was on the front page of major newspapers across the country. By August 15, the story was international.
As with any developing story, journalists had to attempt to counter their own biases and separate rumor from fact by seeking out a variety of sources—eyewitnesses, relatives, community members, police officials—who were in a position to confirm or comment on various aspects of the altercation.
However, professional journalists were not the only people reporting on the unfolding events: residents, witnesses, and activists were all using social media to help tell the story and share details (both verified and unverified) and other claims, perspectives, and opinions that they felt were important. The challenges for journalists were considerable as they tried to confirm as many details as possible as quickly as possible while tweets and other social media posts spread rapidly.