All of the coverage of Ferguson (and now Staten Island) is providing yet another glaring example of a long settled trend in journalism which applies to far more stories than just episodes of racial tension and law enforcement issues. The vast majority of the mainstream press seems to quickly fall in line with an interpretation of each story and, more importantly (to them) the larger meaning of it all. While some amount of analysis is expected, as well as potentially useful, when the narrative takes over the actual news, well… Houston, we have a problem. Jim Geraghty refers to this as narrative journalism.
What if the mainstream media’s increasing devotion to “narrative journalism” – preconceived storylines that fit a particular agenda or political or ideological view, almost always progressive – as opposed to say, “factual journalism” — is actually harmful to the causes they seek to advance?
We’ve seen the media’s “narrative journalism” insisting that Officer Darren Wilson’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown represented a vivid, awful example of racist police forces recklessly using deadly force against defenseless black men. The grand jury remained unconvinced. They saw too many pieces of evidence and witness testimonies that contracted that simple morality play.
The media’s “narrative journalism” contended that George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin represented a brutal crime, revealing a reckless, gun-toting vigilantism loose on the streets of America, preying upon innocent young black men. The jury looked at the available evidence and acquitted Zimmerman. All that one-sided “narrative journalism” left a portion of their audience completely unprepared for the jury’s decision, because it seemed so contrary to everything they had been told.
Jim highlights a problem totally separate from complaints about low standards in news coverage. It’s fair to ask if narrative journalism is doing more harm to the public than simply leaving them uninformed or misinformed. What if they are serving up unrealistic expectations which, when unfulfilled, produce a volatile response? Geraghty notes the example of George Zimmerman. The media narrative was not only that Zimmerman was guilty (and a horrible racist to boot) but that he would almost surely face “justice” at a later date at the hands of either a federal civil rights charge or a wrongful death suit brought by the Martin family. But the media almost entirely failed to note that the Justice Department has pretty much given up on that idea. And absent a conviction on that count, the wrongful death suit loses much of its appeal and may never happen either. So the pre-set expectations of the masses were not met and anger simmered.
Now apply that line of reasoning to the situation in Ferguson. The unending drumbeat from the press was a series of deep dive stories about how Darren Wilson was obviously guilty of murder and either justice would be served upon him or the case would stand as proof that America was a hopelessly hateful place for persons of color and in need of correction by any means at hand. Did cable news build up such an expectation in the minds of the viewers that the eventual decision of the grand jury was unfathomable to them? Did they program the eventual violence and mayhem into the formula?
One has to wonder how things might have played out on the streets of Ferguson last month if everyone had been awaiting an outcome which was explained as being unknown and totally dependent on evidence to which the public and the cable news talking heads were not privy. Would it have made a difference? Impossible to say, as it remains a complete hypothetical, but it would be instructive to find out if we could.