Peter Hart: Media Inflames Fears Instead of Informing Viewers

In this environment, one would hope journalism could serve to inform without inflaming the situation.

Every day brings news reports that tell us the city of Ferguson remains “on edge” or “tense” awaiting a grand jury decision about whether to indict police officer Darren Wilson over the killing of Michael Brown. The expectations of violent uprisings have left some  wondering if a lack of violence would be viewed as some kind of disappointment.

In this environment, one would hope journalism could serve to inform without inflaming the situation. But then reports like this surface from CBS News(11/21/14):

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The CBS report generated a lot of attention–and criticism–because the men in question, apparently members of the New Black Panther Party group, were arrested for illegally purchasing two pistols. The pipe bomb theory appears to be coming from a source talking to CBS:

A law enforcement source said the two men allegedly purchased explosive material during an FBI undercover operation to possibly use during Ferguson protests.

But the more dramatic bombing angle seemed to vanish; the CBS story changed from “explosives” to “firearms.” Reports can resonate, especially when they are repeated by other outlets; on NBC‘s Today show (11/22/14), viewers heard this: “Now there’s word that two men arrested with weapons charges are also suspected of trying to bring pipe bombs, possibly, here to Ferguson.”

Media have been known to stoke panic about violent and disorderly protests. Ahead of the 2004 protests at the Republican National Convention in New York City, media hyped the threat of protester violence. As the New York Civil Liberties Union (8/30/05) reported:

Starting with an August 13 story in Newsday, several media reports cited police sources to support stories about the NYPD tracking “anarchists” bent on creating chaos at the Convention. On August 20, the New York Times reported that police officials had “identified about 60 people as militants, some of whom were arrested for violent acts at past protests.” This rather innocuous statement indicated that the police had developed lists of demonstrators they considered a threat and were sharing this information with the press.

More details were released by the New York Post on August 23, which quoted “a top level source” with knowledge of police intelligence gathering as saying, “These people are trained in kidnapping techniques, bomb-making and building improvised munitions.” On August 26, the Daily News ran a report that seemed to be based on similar police intelligence. Quoting “police intelligence sources,” “a high-ranking police source” and “NYPD intelligence reports,” they describe the threat posed by numerous specific individuals and organizations being tracked by the police as potentially violent protesters. Some of the individuals and organizations profiled were accused of being “violent fanatics,” with a history of violent actions and with plans of “hurling bricks followed by Molotov cocktails through the widows of military recruiting stations” and “vandalizing McDonald’s and Starbucks.”

And in a rather famous example, a New York Times story about the RNC protests erroneously told readers that the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle had been characterized by widespread arson (CounterSpin11/27/09). Activists had to lobby the Times to correct the record.

There are plenty of other examples like this; at the G-8 protests in Minneapolis in 2012, the fanciful stories were of urine and feces “bombs” being thrown at police officers (Firedoglake2/14/12).

Such stories feed the perception that protesters are prone to use violence, and that harsh crackdowns are necessary in order to keep the peace. This is true even when, as is the case in Ferguson, protests are overwhelmingly nonviolent (St. Louis Post-Dispatch11/22/14).

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