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How Twitter forced the news media to pay attention to Ferguson

Published: Thursday, Aug. 21 2014 11:50 a.m. MDT

Updated: Friday, Aug. 22 2014 9:50 a.m. MDT

AP10ThingsToSee- In this photo taken with a long exposure, protesters march in the street as lightning flashes in the distance in Ferguson, Mo., on Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014. Protesters rallied after a police officer shot unarmed Michael Brown on Aug. 9 in the St. Louis suburb. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Jeff Roberson, AP

"I just saw someone die."

That was one of the first tweets sent in connection with the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Brown's death is now the topic of a media firestorm on any given website, TV news channel or newspaper across the U.S. But just two weeks ago, when Brown was shot multiple times on a Saturday morning, few knew his name or suspected the fallout that would result in weeks of protests, riots and a military presence in suburban Ferguson, Missouri.

By the Wednesday following Brown's death, Twitter was reporting a new trending hash tag: #Ferguson. Yet much of the mainstream media like CNN were still rehashing details of Robin Williams' suicide, said Columbia School of Journalism professor Duy Linh Tu. If not for the Twitter activity, Tu contended, Brown's death might have been overlooked.

"[Traditional media] slept on this. They didn't come to this en masse until a few days ago," Tu said. "It was not covering the breaking news it should've been covering. This is one of those cases where the people weren't following the media, the media was following the people."

Dr. Christina Greer, Fordham University assistant professor and author of "Black Ethnics," said America has reached a tipping point in a post-Trayvon Martin world, which is why so many people followed Brown's case on Twitter.

"This is a catalytic moment. This wasn't inner-city violence. This is a suburb where people have left the city to escape the violence," Greer said. "After Trayvon Martin, [Brown's shooting] galvanized people. This is their chance to say, 'This has to stop.'"

Greer said that the facts of Brown's case make it very different from the average inner-city shooting. A police officer shot an 18-year-old unarmed, black teen six times — twice in the head — in a suburban neighborhood in broad daylight after an apparent scuffle with the officer. His body lay in the street for nearly six hours.

To Greer, the issue is race and a culture of "white protection" that can sometimes infiltrate the media.

"When kids are killed in a high-school shooting, for example, no one has ever said, 'Well, that kid got killed and he smoked a lot of pot, so ...' People would literally go insane if anyone said that. The protection of whiteness is a real frustration for a lot of people," Greer said. "The black community at large is pretty sure it's not going to get a fair shake in the criminal justice system or in the media. And that's heartbreaking."

Loss of focus

NYU race and media professor Charlton McIlwain and Greer say another reason many people rely on Twitter for information about Ferguson is the media's focus on stories peripheral to the crime itself.

"Lots of media outlets aren’t talking about the fact that Buddhist monks have flown to Ferguson from Tibet. A lot of them aren't talking about how Palestinians are tweeting people in St. Louis and showing levels of support. This has become a global conversation," Greer said. "When all you talk about is rioting an looting, it's not about Mike Brown anymore. Now it's about commerce. A child was murdered and nothing was done about it. That's the story."

McIlwain said the reason many people follow the story — the fact that Brown was killed by a police officer — gets lost in the "spectacle" of violent protests and other arrests.

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