The shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson two years ago 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.
New information patterns have emerged that 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.
But misinformation and distortion continue to crowd out facts, context and honest reflection about important events when they occur. How can citizens and news consumers mobilize to disrupt cycles of misinformation and misrepresentation? 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 8 billion videos are viewed every day on Facebook.
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.
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.
Peter Adams is the senior vice president for educational programs for the News Literacy Project, a journalism education organization. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency LLC.