Is cable news failing Ferguson?


The death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown sparked national news coverage but not as quickly as one might think. Coverage of the shooting and associated protests in Ferguson, Missouri follows a similar pattern to the racially-charged shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Pew Research Center's analysis of Twitter's role in the news coverage found that the social media site covered the Ferguson story before cable news.

The day after Brown's death, there were 146,000 tweets on the subject. But it wasn't until Monday that MSNBC and Fox News covered the news during evening prime-time broadcast. It took CNN three days after the event to devote any time to cover the story.

By Tuesday, all three news channels covered the story, but coverage picked up after Wednesday night's protests and violent police confrontations. Twitter and news channels were filled with images of police wearing riot gear and using tear gas. Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of The Huffington Post both tweeted about being detained by police that same night.

As a result, coverage and attention increased on Twitter, with an average of 4,500 tweets per minutes between 8p.m. and midnight EDT. The next day Ferguson had made national news.

The study found that Fox News covered Ferguson less than MSNBC and CNN's coverage is the same amount  of coverage Fox gave to the shooting of Trayvon Martin. MSNBC devoted 5 hours and 42 minutes to the ongoing protests from Sunday to last Friday. CNN gave 3 hours and 59 minutes to Ferguson coverage during that same time frame and Fox gave 3 hours of total coverage

Compared to the Trayvon Martin shooting, news of Brown's death sparked conversation on Twitter immediately. Martin's story, on the other hand, began to see a rise in Twitter talk three weeks after his death. On its peak day, there were over 3.6 million tweets regarding the events of Ferguson, compared to the daily peak number of 692,000 tweets about Martin.

The Trayvon Martin shooting did not see coverage immediately. It wasn't until the 911 tapes were released that conversation increased on Twitter. Martin's story received 4.7 million tweets over a month following the shooting.

There have been more than 10.6 million tweets about Ferguson from the day of the shooting up until eight days after.

This could be a result of more Twitter users. In 2012, 15 percent of online U.S. adults used Twitter compared to 19 percent in 2014. But it could also be the result of users simply taking matters in their own hands, becoming not just consumers of news but the producers and the aggregators as cable news channels continue to fall behind. 

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