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June 2012
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CAUTION Media shouldn't be fuel for Ferguson violence

The news media have been accused of being part of the problem in fueling the emotions that have led to repeated violence in Ferguson, Mo. The unrest there follows the shooting of a black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer. We believe there is room for criticism in the way some media have approached the story.

The shooting of Brown appears unwarranted and the outrage is understandable. The law surrounding use of deadly force, even by police officers, is appropriately strict. Even construing the facts most favorably to the officer - a version that says Brown attacked the officer and attempted to get the officer's gun - the fact that Brown was shot six times, apparently from a distance, raises serious legal questions.

But many in the media are clinging hard to an incendiary storyline that is increasingly in doubt - that Brown was shot from behind while holding his hands up. The Associated Press story in Tuesday's Paducah Sun is an example. The story led with the statement that a pathologist hired by Brown's family said a bullet wound to Brown's right arm "may indicate his hands were up or his back was turned."

The story said the pathologist went on the say the "team" that conducted the autopsy for the family can't be sure exactly how the wounds were inflicted and needs more information.

That "team" was led by former New York City chief medical examiner Dr. Michael Baden, who gave an extensive interview to Fox News' Greta Van Susteren Monday night. His comments on the issue are instructive.

Baden's autopsy included a diagram that indicated the shots that struck Brown came from the front. Asked by Van Susteren if the wounds on Brown's arms were consistent with his hands being raised, Baden replied:

"They are consistent with arms. They are consistent, yes, with the arms, with the arm forearm and right forearm and arm being raised because they are on the right arm. But they are also consistent with the arms being at the side. So there could be either way from the gunshot wounds themselves in the arms."

Baden went on the say that the wounds also could be consistent with someone charging or coming at the officer aggressively.

Translation: Suggesting based on the autopsy that Brown was shot from behind with his hands raised is a dubious proposition.

We question the propriety of some media continuing to try to market the most volatile version of the Brown shooting even as evidence begins to raise serious doubts about its veracity. There's still an important story here even if the hands in the air claim falls by the way, but perspective is needed.

It's also worth noting a TV news report that observed that the 100 or so protesters who remained on the streets in Ferguson late Monday were far outnumbered by the number of media present. While there's no question the Brown story is a big story, there's also concern even among police officials that the heavy media presence at the protests is encouraging some of the violence.

We're not sure what the answer to the latter problem is. The Brown shooting does merit major coverage. But emotions around this incident are raw, and violence continues. Because of that, and because there is a lot still to be learned from forensic work, we think a little more caution should be shown in how this matter is reported.

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