A Black Teen, a White Cop, and a City in Turmoil: Analyzing Newspaper Reports on Ferguson, Missouri and the Death of Michael Brown

DOI10.1177/1043986218787732
Date01 November 2018
Published date01 November 2018
AuthorJebadiha E. Potterf,Jason R. Pohl
Subject MatterArticles
https://doi.org/10.1177/1043986218787732
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2018, Vol. 34(4) 421 –441
© The Author(s) 2018
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DOI: 10.1177/1043986218787732
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Article
A Black Teen, a White
Cop, and a City in Turmoil:
Analyzing Newspaper Reports
on Ferguson, Missouri and the
Death of Michael Brown
Jebadiha E. Potterf1 and Jason R. Pohl1
Abstract
Understanding how newspapers depict fatal shootings of minority men by police,
and how this affects implicit biases, may offer insight into why such shootings
continue to occur. Through an analysis of national newspaper articles immediately
following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, we investigate how
these events are framed regarding the use of victim-supporting, social justice frames
or law enforcement–supporting, law and order frames. We then theorize how this
might contribute to the perpetuation of implicit biases. We find social justice frames
appear more frequently than law and order frames during this period. This shift in the
presentation of information might affect the reinforcement of implicit biases that the
news media is often accused of causing.
Keywords
policing, police shootings, race and media, Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown
Introduction
Moments after shots echoed through the streets of Ferguson, Missouri on August 9,
2014, it became clear a public spectacle was imminent. The details of the situation
leading to the shooting remain unclear, even years later and after multiple investi-
gations. The Department of Justice provides multiple official, yet conflicting
1Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jebadiha E. Potterf, Department of Sociology, Colorado State University, B258 Clark Building, Fort
Collins, CO 80,523-1784, USA.
Email: jpotterf@colostate.edu
787732CCJXXX10.1177/1043986218787732Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticePotterf and Pohl
research-article2018
422 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 34(4)
accounts, built largely upon police testimony. Briefly, according to the report,
Officer Darren Wilson said he tried to stop two Black men who were walking down
the middle of Canfield Drive (Department of Justice [DOJ], 2015). After telling
them to move to the sidewalk, and their failure to comply, Wilson attempted to exit
the vehicle. A struggle ensued, and one of the men, 18-year-old Michael Brown,
reportedly assaulted the officer. According to investigators, Brown tried to grab the
officer’s gun at which point a shot was fired (DOJ, 2015). Brown ran on foot and,
after a brief pursuit, began motioning toward the officer. After several warnings,
and reportedly seeing Brown reach toward his waistband, the officer fired several
shots. Brown kept coming toward him. During another series of shots, with Brown
less than 10 ft away, a shot hit Brown in the head. He was pronounced dead moments
later (DOJ, 2015).
Brown’s companion at the time, Dorian Johnson, disputed this account, as did
several of Brown’s friends and family who characterized him as passive and nonvi-
olent—a claim corroborated by his lack of prior trouble with police or in school
(Alcindor, Bello, & Fazal, 2014). According to Johnson, the officer did stop them for
walking in the middle of the street. But that it was the officer instead of Brown who
became angry. The officer opened the sport-utility vehicle’s (SUV) door, hitting
Brown with it, and then reached through the unrolled window, grabbed Brown
around the neck pulling him part way into the vehicle (Alcindor et al., 2014). During
the confrontation, a shot was fired, and Brown was released. The two men ran.
Johnson ducked behind a car while Brown ran down the road. That’s when Wilson
shot Brown in the back. He turned around and, with his hands, showed he was
unarmed. The officer kept shooting at Brown, even though Brown was no longer a
threat (Alcindor et al., 2014).
Other witnesses gave conflicting statements. Some supported the officer’s ver-
sion, while others aligned with Johnson’s version. Ultimately, several shots hit him
in the chest, and the fatal shot struck him in the head (DOJ, 2015). Autopsies per-
formed by two state employees and one independent investigator failed to resolve
many of the disputed points. Gun residue on Brown’s hand and cuts to his forearm
confirmed that he was in close proximity when the first shot was fired, supporting
claims that he was leaning through the vehicle’s window (DOJ, 2015). Bruising to
the officer’s face seemed to confirm Brown had struck him, but a lack of bruising on
Brown’s knuckles questioned the force of the strikes. He had a bullet wound on the
back of his right forearm, but investigators could not determine whether he was fac-
ing toward or away from the officer at the time of impact. Blood at the scene and
several witness statements supported the officer’s claim that Brown was approach-
ing him as he fired but could not determine the rate of approach or Brown’s intent
(DOJ, 2015).
Racial tensions quickly mounted as crowds gathered on the street near Brown’s
body (Fisher, 2014). In the days that followed, the shooting gave way to civil unrest and
criticism that the incident was merely the latest racially motivated case of wrongdoing
by Ferguson police (Vega, 2014). Massive demonstrations in the streets were mostly

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