Similar to the way the Occupy movement took over the national center stage, outrage over the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the grand-jury exonerations of the police officers responsible, have focused the media (especially television) on the thorny issue of police-minority relations in an unprecedented way. The daily real-time census of protests around the country, combined with compelling profiles and interviews, has led to a groundswell of examination of America's racial divide.
The result: a nonstop focus on something that the media has been historically inclined to ignore, or certainly underreport. We're used to flood-the-zone TV coverage of major domestic events; what's happening now is a remarkable breadth of attention being paid to our national blind spot. "Flood-the-zone" coverage takes on a new meaning when the nation itself is the zone in flood.
Network reaction to the Garner and Brown decisions, and their aftermath, has been deservedly panoramic. Reporters from the networks and many local affiliates hit the streets and stayed there as nationwide protests consumed the popular attention. The broadcast and cable networks are still devoting top-of-show segments to the Brown-Garner fallout, some of them with the kind of sub-branded content (ABC's "Race and Justice in America" segment of "World News With David Muir" is one example) that tells the viewing public the topic's escalated in importance, and more than a one-and-done event.
Besides its on-the-ground reporting after the fact, CNN made the early move of airing a documentary that's helped put events of the last two weeks in perspective. "Black and Blue," hosted by Soledad O'Brien, now a periodic CNN contributor, looked at the lives of young black men in New York City, men who were repeatedly stopped and frisked by the city's police officers, some as many as 100 times. The doc, which first aired Nov. 18, was re-aired on Nov. 23 and again on Nov. 26 — as sure a sign as you could ask for that somebody's watching.
And thanks to Vine, You Tube and Twitter, social media has thoroughly become local media, as protest events across the country unify like-minded Americans in real time. Local TV stations in cities with protests are getting tweets on the social air between regular broadcasts with dizzying speed.
In one case, when a local TV station didn't seem to get the message that coverage of the Ferguson grand jury decision deserved to trump their regularly scheduled programming, viewers were quick to set them straight.
WTVC, the ABC affiliate in Chattanooga, Tenn., discovered that on Nov. 25, minutes after its social media staff tweeted the news that coverage of the Ferguson jury's findings wouldn't get in the way of the regular broadcast of "Dancing With the Stars." Outrage from the public was swift and relentless; station staff personally responded to tweets from angry viewers, with hours of serial mea culpas.
The Chattanooga station suggests not just a change in the dialogue about race in America, but also a shift — how tectonic remains to be seen — in the media's role in addressing the nation's racial divide. Stories that react to events are necessarily the bread and butter of television news; what's called for is programming that looks at ways to anticipate those events. With more minority reporters. More stories about local law enforcement. More sensitivity to practices of editorial style that establish white as a default existence. More stories about minorities in a context beyond the criminal or the woebegone.
Stories from the national networks have reflected a refreshingly concentrated attention to how everyday Americans react to events in Ferguson and New York, and the drama behind the nation's most vexing existential challenge. And that attention really couldn't have been avoided. The fact that the media has had to actually spend serious time in Ferguson, Mo., for example, has resulted in probing, at times painful interviews with the people of that city, as well as thoughtful, reasoned analysis done as much on the ground as from a studio stage in New York. That can only be a good thing.
It's something to build on. The news, especially television news, tends toward the spasmodic, the immediate reflex reaction to events. What's needed, and maybe what's coming from now on, is more media attention to the tripwire social and economic issues behind events.
If police departments need more community policing, this revelatory wave of protest events can be a wake-up call to news orgs, which would do well to think about more community reporting. Among other things, that means taking a hard look at how, through changes in staffing and editorial policies, and getting outside the comfort zones of personal networking, the media could have a role to play in this national transformation, a role that's bigger than just doing standups at the scene.