People Don't Trust National Ferguson Coverage

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TOPEKA, Kansas (WIBW) -- The unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, has much of the nation - and many parts of the world - glued to television and computer screens.

And while trying to cover the volatile story, it appears journalists are facing questions about what their roles should be.

We share some local viewpoints on why people distrust the media.

Numerous national and international reporters have joined local journalists in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson covering days of unrest after 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson August 9.

But how much do people trust the media in such a traumatic situation?

According to a recent Gallup poll, not much.

The poll says Americans' confidence in newspapers, TV, and internet is no higher than 22 percent.

"Sometimes the line between commentary and news has really been blurred," Associate Dean of Journalism at the University of Kansas Barbara Barnett said.

She said people don't think the media tells all sides of the story.

"This has been a trend since the 70s when media was at an all-time high, when media were really considered heroes because they had investigated Watergate, and you've seen that decline steadily," Barnett said.

Northeast Kansans weighed in on a WIBW Facebook post asking if they trust the media, specifically on Ferguson coverage.

One said, "Often the media sensationalizes a situation and fans the fire,"

Another said, "I'd trust them more if it was more about quality journalism rather than who's fast and first with the story."

And another said, "Not always, especially the national media. Local media I trust."

WIBW-TV General Manager Jim Ogle said the difference between national and local news coverage is that a community may see a national crew for only a short period of time, whereas local crews have experience there.

"They go to them day in and day out," Ogle said. "They've been able to see how they've covered stories, and you earn that trust on a local basis each day."

The journalists are not only trying to report on a shooting, but also the police reaction to it and the stark racial divides that have bubbled to the surface following Brown's death. Some journalists report being tear-gassed and arrested.

Barnett says the chaos affects their reporting.

"Reporters start becoming part of the story and that's never where you want to be. In a case like this, it's very hard to bring up the subject of race and talk about it, for anybody. What media can do is let other people do the talking, and maybe that starts a dialogue."

She said because many reporters want to be the eyes and ears in the situation, and some ended up getting arrested, they have condemned the police's actions as being inappropriate.

"They talk in terms of 'all blacks feel this way,' 'the media is this,' 'the police,'" Ogle said. "One of the reasons why there are problems like this in all communities is the shorthand of lumping people together rather than getting to the true causes of what the violence is."

Barnett says another reason why the lack of trust exists is because journalists move quickly from one subject to another.

"I think one of the things journalists can do better, that we all can do better, is not just forget about a story when the news part of it is over, to be thinking about the deeper, underlying issues here in this community and to even ask the community, 'What are we missing? What kind of stories should we be covering, what do you want us to do?'"


Barnett teaches classes on gender, violence and media, post-traumatic stress in relation to journalism, and gender and media. She has conducted researches on journalists and post-traumatic stress, and has presented her work to the Department of State.