Social Media

News Literacy Lessons From Ferguson

Peter Adams
Peter Adams, NLP’s senior vice president for educational programs, reflects on the lessons for consumers in following chaotic, controversial and fast-breaking events that provoke biases at every turn.

The shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., two years ago today touched off a national debate about race and policing, galvanized nascent social and political movements and surfaced anew a variety of historic American tensions and conflicts.

The shooting, and the subsequent decision by a grand jury not to indict Wilson, also generated an explosion of information. Americans saw an avalanche of raw images and video, rumors, propaganda and other forms of misinformation, and a massive amount of news coverage. This body of information, and the story of how particular pieces of it were created, perceived and shared, represents a rich and challenging trove of news literacy lessons. Echoes of these same lessons can be seen in the aftermath of more than a dozen events that followed, including the killings of Tamir Rice in Cleveland in 2014, Freddie Gray in Baltimore last year and three police officers in Dallas last month.

This piece highlights four such lessons drawn from “Facing Ferguson: News Literacy in a Digital Age,” a new educational resource developed by the News Literacy Project and Facing History and Ourselves:

  • Understanding the role that confirmation bias plays in how we process information about controversial events
  • The importance, limitations and pitfalls of images and raw information
  • How the watchdog role of the press is changing for both citizens and the news media
  • The dynamic influence of social media and how these platforms can both inform and misinform public understanding of significant events

These information patterns are interconnected and often reinforce each other, sometimes to the detriment of public understanding. An eagerness to accept a viral claim can ignite memes and rumors that make their way into partisan news sources and are accepted as fact by particular audiences. Pre-existing perspectives and beliefs can lead people to bend and exaggerate the meaning of images and raw video — or to harbor sharply divergent perspectives on news coverage.

These forces also can work together in positive ways. Citizens with smartphones often beat journalists to breaking news scenes, playing a critical role in drawing the attention of news media and enhancing coverage by helping to provide a faster, fuller, and often, fairer picture in ways that were not possible a decade ago. Large numbers of consumers from around the world fact-check, compare and critique news and other information in real time, enriching conversations about important journalistic standards such as language and image selection, fairness and verification, in newsrooms and living rooms alike. And the news media can bring focused, skilled attention to injustices that citizen watchdogs first call to public attention.

But misinformation and distortion continue to crowd out facts, context and honest reflection about important events when they occur. How can citizens and consumers of news and information mobilize to disrupt cycles of misinformation and misrepresentation, and to encourage or contribute to enhanced context, credibility and understanding? How can we cut through the rumors, half-truths and opinion-mongering?

First, we can work to become aware of how we all bring our cognitive biases and perspectives to bear on the way we seek, believe and share information. Left unchecked, confirmation bias can cause people to embrace claims they agree with more quickly and less critically, even if these assertions are provably false. Its counterpart, disconfirmation bias, can cause people to automatically reject claims they disagree with and seek reasons to dismiss them even if they are demonstrably true. Our hearts simply react more quickly and more powerfully to information than our heads, and this process seriously inhibits our ability to evaluate the credibility and relevance of information unless we recognize this inclination.

We also need to appreciate the importance, power and pitfalls of images and raw video. The ubiquity of smartphones — and the ease with which anyone can share information with a global audience — means that dramatically more of this kind of information is available than ever. More than 3.2 billion images are now posted to just five social media platforms each day — more than 37,000 each second. More than eight billion videos are viewed every day on Facebook.  Add to this tidal wave the ease with which even casual internet users can alter, distort or repurpose these digital assets, and the enormous potential for misperceptions and fabrications to warp the nation’s consciousness is unmistakable.

For instance, five days after Brown’s shooting, and a day before Wilson’s name was released, a Twitter account claiming affiliation with the hacker and activist group Anonymous released the name and image of a man it claimed was the police officer involved. They identified the wrong man, but the rumor exploded online. An image of a murder suspect in Oregon also went viral in the aftermath of the shooting along with the claim that the gun and cash-wielding teen shown was Michael Brown. Similar rumors — such as the fake #BaltimoreLootCrew propaganda campaign — have appeared in the aftermath of other police killings.

In another example, the Ferguson police released a raw video from a convenience store security camera showing Brown grabbing several packs of cigarillos from behind the counter and pushing a convenience store clerk out of his way as he left without paying. Reaction to this footage was intensely divided. Many people sought reasons to deny that the video had any significance at all while others, overlooking or rationalizing its loose relevance and lack of context, maintained it proved that the shooting was justified.

In Ferguson, as with any chaotic, fast-breaking story on such controversial subjects, it is essential that we recognize the iterative nature of early reporting. We must also try to withhold judgment and follow the news over time through a variety of sources until as many knowable facts and perspectives as possible can emerge. This gives truth a chance to catch up with the misinformation, rumors and spin that invariably surface in the frenetic race to inform, incite and persuade. 

Finally, we must confront the ways in which digital technologies have dramatically expanded the watchdog role of journalism. Not only are citizens documenting newsworthy events, including controversial killings, with words, images and video (including livestreaming), but they also can share, check and respond to information more quickly. This ability to access a piece of information, compare it to other credible sources and respond in real time can quickly squash rumors and help journalists and the public sort through the chaos of breaking news events more accurately and fairly. Ultimately, this fosters a more robust national conversation.

In Ferguson, citizens using social media, particularly Twitter, put the story of Brown’s shooting on the national map and journalists responded, providing verification, context and deeper reporting in the aftermath — not just of what took place that day between Brown and Wilson; not just of the wider, systematic targeting of African-Americans by the Ferguson Police Department; but of a trend of deaths at the hands of police that has only recently entered the mainstream consciousness.

The question of whether this national attention should or could have come sooner is cause for serious reflection in newsrooms across the country.  The fact that such killings now receive the attention they deserve is cause for renewed appreciation of the watchdog role that journalists and citizens alike can play under the First Amendment.

In an interview for Facing Ferguson, St. Louis American reporter Kenya Vaughn said, “There are people in certain situations that don’t have a voice, and the media … have the opportunity to be the voice for the voiceless.”

This is what the framers of our Constitution envisioned, and never has this opportunity been greater.

(These and other news literacy lessons can be more fully explored in the Facing Ferguson resource.)