"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.
"There’s no doubt much of the media interest in Ferguson has to do with the spectacle itself. If there were no so-called rioting or looting or National Guard or tear gas, many wouldn’t be there. When they do show up after that is all in place, a very different story gets told," McIlwain said. "At the beginning, for many people, this was a very simple case of a young black man shot multiple times for no apparent reason. After spectacle, there are other stories there as well."
One of those stories was the arrest of two journalists who were briefly detained and held without being booked for reporting on the Ferguson protests. Since then, more reporters have been arrested and police killed another man near Ferguson. Some have argued that the peripheral stories have overshadowed Brown's death. The Daily Caller accused one of the arrested reporters, The Washington Post's Wesley Lowery, of making the scene in Ferguson about him after a confrontational appearance on CNN.
"The fact that some media has been locked out of the process is troublesome, but for many people, that’s not the story," McIlwain said. "The real story gets lost in some of these newer narratives."
As tensions cool in Ferguson, the media's lens may now be filled with the legal investigation into Brown's killing.
Out of touch
McIlwain said Ferguson was an example of a failing of the media to keep up with the nation it covers. The media weren't able to differentiate Brown's case from thousands of other black teens who are shot in the U.S. People who did realize, he said, were following along on Twitter.
"This is an example of how Twitter fills a void where you have journalists who either don’t have the resources, time or inclination to write about a story that seems passé, and to say that this kind of incidence is commonplace is a different kind of commentary on our media situation," McIlwain said. "Twitter has become that barometer for what people are interested in."
It's not just that Twitter is perhaps the best place — online or otherwise — to keep a finger on society's pulse in real time, it's also one of the most real, Tu said.
"If you look on Facebook, it’s as if the world were that best place and people did nothing but dump water on their heads. It's a more personal network," Tu said, referencing the viral ALS "ice bucket challenge." "Twitter is a public-facing entity and it behaves like the news. As news is happening, the freshest stuff is always on top."
Besides the immediacy of Twitter, McIlwain said Twitter offers familiarity from a network that's hand-cultivated.
"I think there are many folks —and I’m one of them — who for most of this time has followed my Twitter stream more so than major media reporting," McIlwain said. "That's because it's connected to people I know or trust, often that are in my community and that’s the lens I’m looking through."3 comments on this story
Tu said the idea that the mainstream media had to essentially play catch-up with Brown's death in light of Twitter only illustrates how out of touch it is.
"Citizen journalism is just a part of our diet now. The fundamental change is that the audience has matured enough to know that the guy behind the anchor desk in a tie isn't the only news source," Tu said. "The guy on the street with an iPhone is now just as authoritative."