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Twitter and the News Media in Ferguson

Images of people unwittingly in the news can quickly come to serve as a form of shorthand for their character, accurately or not.

Given the single-screen limit of many online news stories and the short attention span of news consumers, a photograph can quickly shape the tone of a news profile. The #IfIWereGunnedDown trend on Twitter apparently forced the news media to rethink their choice of images of 18-year-old Michael Brown, the victim in the police shooting in Ferguson in August.

I wrote about this phenomenon in more depth in an article in Zeteo: The Journal of Interdisciplinary Writing. I invite you to click on the link and read the entire article, co-authored with Marquette University’s Herbert Lowe, a past president of the National Association of Black Journalists, in which we explore the ways that Twitter and the news media influenced one another in contributing to as well as detracting from balanced and unbiased depictions of the events in Ferguson.

We write: “In this digital news age, when mainstream media editorial staffs awake to a story such as the Brown case, the coverage basics are fairly predictable: An image of the dead teenager is pulled from a social media site. (In an era of endless selfies, the images certainly are out there.) The news subject is branded. Think of Trayvon Martin in his hoodie . . .”



Covering the #Why in the Michael Brown shooting case

The mainstream media flocked to Ferguson, Missouri, once the public protests started in the wake of the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer.  Having been one of those reporters who rush to the scene, driving long hours and often way above the speed limit, I appreciate the difficulty of the task of covering a new community with no sources and no knowledge of the local history.

In the 5Ws and H that journalists live by— the who, what, when, where, why and how— it is the “why” that most needs telling in the Brown case, but the “why” takes the most reporting, as reliable sources do not come easily or quickly.

The longstanding inverted pyramid story structure begins with a lead that highlights the 5Ws and H of an event. These elements are then supported and explained further in the body of the piece. This structure lends itself to official sources and observable actions. The “why” of the 5W and H often must go unanswered in early reporting, when the public’s attention and mindset are still up for grabs, because it doesn’t fit in a paragraph or two. Or even a story or two. And it goes unanswered because the opinions of the sources needed to explain the “why” often don’t fit into a neat narrative. And because often those sources aren’t sources at all due to the fact that few if any reporters have time to cover the unofficial business of communities.

Mainstream media outlets in particular don’t have resources for or interest in covering communities such as Ferguson, which has a population of 21,111 that is 67 percent black and has 22 percent of households living below the federal poverty level.  U.S. news organizations are overwhelmingly white, as newsroom demographics from the American Society of News Editors tell us.  Thus, even the most enlightened newsroom, lacking diversity, will inevitably miss important elements of a story rooted in the rich soil of race and/or ethnicity.

For this story, Twitter served as the powerful reminder of where to begin reporting the “why.” Hashtags such as #IfIWereGunnedDown, which criticizes the media’s choice of negative versus positive images used to depict black crime victims, serve to challenge the journalistic outlook on the world. See Chapter 5 in Overcoming Bias, on Understanding Culture, Understanding Sources, to learn about reporting strategies to consider in continuing coverage of the many possible “Whys” behind Brown’s death and ensuing protests, including the militarization of local police forces, the lack of diversity in local police forces and the history of tensions between local police and black youth.

Looking for story ideas? Look to the confirmation bias. (It’s everywhere!)

For journalists and future journalists, this is a nice little example of applying the stuff of cognitive bias and error to everyday affairs. In this case, the theory is applied to the dreaded professional conference that so many of us attend at least once at some point in life.

The confirmation bias, which is discussed in Ch. 7 of my book, is the tendency for us to favor information that confirms our preconceptions, even if the information isn’t correct. We gather information selectively and recall it from memory selectively, and we interpret information to favor our preconceptions.

We cognitively get our ducks in a row so new information fits in with our existing beliefs.

ducks in a row

The author of the linked piece is an employee at a consulting firm for conference and trade show organizers, and he applies the confirmation bias to highlight how we tend to surround ourselves with people like us – people who think like us and believe what we believe. So it is at the average professional conference, the author asserts. This type of like-seeking-like behavior causes wrong-headed thinking, he points out in his 15 myths about conference education. An example from his list, “Our education is fine because it’s the way we’ve always done it,” highlights how this sort of thinking can lead to stale conference talks and stale classroom teaching, too.

It wouldn’t be hard to tweak the idea of applying simple biases to our daily lives to come up with fresh ideas about errors that aren’t fresh at all – that is, habitual thinking missteps that affect people’s everyday decisions and outcomes. When it comes to the confirmation bias, everyone is doing it; journalists just need to know how to spot it.

Confirmation bias encourages us to accept information that confirms our beliefs and reject information that challenges our beliefs. It is why people watch Fox News or MSNBC, depending on their political bent. It helps explain why people accept common myths. We pick what we want to believe – in fashion choices and parenting and politics and business, you name it.

The confirmation bias runs rampant through our lives. Look for story ideas in the ways that everyday thinking errors affect us all – sometimes in unfavorable ways.

A Cognitive Error at Work

Examining false cause: How assuming that one thing leads to another can lead to inaccurate conclusions


Does waking up three hours before work, listening to audio books during a commute and eating fewer than 300 junk food calories a day lead to riches, or do riches allow for such habits?

Correlation does not equal cause. Such habits of thought (Overcoming Bias, Ch. 1) can cause faulty conclusions. That is, a correlation – meaning a relationship between two things, such as that wealthy people tend to wake up three hours before work – doesn’t necessarily mean that waking up early causes one to become wealthy.

A news consumer reading this infographic could be excused for such faulty thinking however.

The infographic, developed by social-media marketing company NowSourcing and based on a study by Thomas C. Corley of the daily habits of 233 wealthy and 128 poor people, makes an implicit connection that the habits of the wealthy made them wealthy, and if the poor would just follow suit, they might be rich, too! After all, the common traits of wealthy people must have some meaning aside from mere coincidence, right?

But the infographic is based on false causation.

The habits of the rich, however noble and health-conscious, don’t necessarily lead to wealth. Consider for a moment that it could be the other way around: Couldn’t it be that wealthy people can afford to eat healthier (and often more expensive) food? Or have the resources to get aerobic exercise four times a week (hard to do if you’re a single parent working full time and dependent on mass transit and with no nearby gym or safe jogging trail)? Or watch far less TV because instead of staring at a screen they are at the opera or symphony or corporate fundraiser or museum opening?

The infographic is based on the logical fallacy that an event that follows another was necessarily a consequence of the first event. In academic terminology, post hoc ergo propter hoc is Latin for “after this, therefore because of this.”

The lesson here? Whenever an information source, be it human or data or document, suggests one thing causes another, be skeptical, and apply your critical thinking skills. Just because one event occurred earlier and was followed by another doesn’t mean the first caused the second. I’m sure it can’t hurt to adopt the habits outlined in the infographic, but thee correlation between those habits and wealth is not established there.

Covering the Transgender Community Requires Clarity and Sensitivity—Part II

Currently, news outlets are covering the transgender community in a variety of ways. Some examples:

1. News-making transgender individuals, such as this story in The Huffington Post’s “Gay Voices” section about the transgender model Carmen Carrera.

2. Stories about the variety of issues involved in being a transgender person. For example, New York Magazine wrote about parents of transgender children.

3. Transgender individuals as sources in news stories that have nothing to do with transgender living or issues. These are people tapped for their expertise, period. Appropriately, that level of inclusion of the transgender community in news stories may go completely unnoticed by news consumers. In this role, the individuals are sources of information on a particular topic, and their race, ethnicity, age—or sexual orientation or gender status—has nothing to do with their contribution to the article.

Key points to think about when covering the transgender community include:

* Writing for an underrepresented community as opposed to about it. The latter objectifies and distances the people being covered; the former seeks to explain and increase knowledge about a group of people in society.

* Ensuring the most accurate description of a person is used in the news coverage, but that the description is also explained if necessary. Try to avoid ostracizing the news audience with jargon. Illuminate the news audience with clear, concise descriptions.

Here’s a good example to follow: The author of a Rolling Stone article about a rock star in a punk band who is transitioning to a female helps readers understand the terminology (in this case, gender dysphoria), which is presumably foreign to most in the Rolling Stone audience, and also gives the space to allow the profile subject to describe it:

“For as long as he can remember, Gabel has lived with a condition known as gender dysphoria. As the textbooks explain it, it’s a feeling of intense dissatisfaction and disconnect from the gender you were assigned at birth. As Gabel explains it, “The cliché is that you’re a woman trapped in a man’s body, but it’s not that simple. It’s a feeling of detachment from your body and from yourself.”

* Journalists are trained to emphasize a person’s humanity by leading with a person, as in: a person who is deaf or a person who is visually impaired. So too, personhood should be emphasized in coverage of the LGBTQ community. Word choice, as discussed in Chapter 8, The Power of Words and Tone, is essential to educating news consumers concerning a topic about which most have little knowledge.

Here are a couple examples to avoid:

The headline on the online site, AsiaOne.com: “Right to ban transgenders from clubs?”

Or, this New York Daily News headline: “Transgenders win discrimination tiff with American Eagle Outfitters, AG Andrew Cuomo forces changes.”

* “Transgender” is not a noun; it is an adjective, so use it accordingly. One tool for keeping abreast on the terminology for all LGBTQ individuals is the GLAAD Media Reference Guide.

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