Media Maelstrom: Context is Key

Former Mayor W.W. Herenton - via Lea Ester Redmond on Facebook
Former Mayor Herenton
via Lea Ester Redmond on Facebook

Its funny how just a few words, reported without a whole lot of context, can drive perceptions about a news story.  Such is the case in the coverage of former Memphis Mayor Herenton’s speech at Mayor Strickland’s prayer breakfast last weekend.

Yes, Herenton really did say that crime, particularly violent crime in Memphis is “a black problem”. But the full context of what he said is more nuanced than that.

Mayor Herenton issued a call to action to the black community, the business community, and the faith community. His comments are as notable for what he said, as what he didn’t say. Filling in those gaps brings a better understanding of what he’s pushing, but that didn’t happen until days later.  This highlights the divide between a few comments that drove some content, and context that could have brought greater understanding.

Herenton Speaks

Before I get too far into this, I think its important you hear the words from the horse’s mouth if you haven’t already. Thankfully, WMC Action News 5 streamed the event on Facebook. Herenton’s comments begin about 50 minutes into the video, and last for about 30 minutes.

There’s a good bit of a difference in what Mayor Herenton said, and what was initially reported. In some cases, that difference is extreme. Here’s how the local media covered the event:

City leaders call for change in 2017 | WREG
City leaders look toward 2017 with hope for change | WMC
Mayor Strickland hosts NYE prayer breakfast | Fox13
Former Mayor Blasts Crime Commission, Sheriff, Juvenile Court Judge | Local 24
“A blessing upon our city” – mayor’s guests pray for Memphis | Commercial Appeal

Herenton absolutely did say what was reported, but in the absence of the full context of his remarks, those “money quotes” got blown out of proportion. From looking at the headlines above, its pretty easy to tell which outlet chose to go with the “money” and which ones took a more balanced approach.

That’s not to say that those “money quotes” aren’t problematic. But against the full context of his 30 minute speech, those “money quotes” are closer to passing phrases rather than major themes. By treating them like major themes, one outlet’s coverage drove the debate about Herenton’s message…a debate that initially lacked the context of his full message.

Backlash against Herenton’s Speech

The backlash against Herenton’s reported message was swift. While there was commentary from several people here in Memphis, this tweetstorm by former Commercial Appeal Columnist, Wendi Thomas is by far the most comprehensive.

By Tuesday, Memphis media outlets started reporting on the backlash.

Former mayor’s words about race and crime rubbing some the wrong way | Fox13
Former mayor faces backlash after linking crime rate to race | WMC
The 9:01: Herenton’s ‘new path,’ more | Commercial Appeal

And, Smart City Memphis got in on the action as well.

There Is No Crimefighting Without Fighting Poverty | Smart City Memphis

All of these stories deal with the multi-dimensional problem that is violent crime in Memphis. I want to particularly commend WMC and Fox 13 for bringing stories that reach out beyond just covering the backlash in a conventional manner. Their stories brought a high degree of context and information to the discussion. We need more journalism like that from our local TV news.

The fact remains that Wendi Thomas’ tweetstorm brought the most context of anything…particularly as it concerns Mayor Herenton’s motivations and potential conflicts of interest. For me, the motivations and conflicts are where the meat of the story lies…and something that really wasn’t covered (that I saw) anywhere other than by Ms. Thomas.

The Ongoing Discussion

Thomas also posted her twitter stream on Facebook. Comments on that post continued well into the week, and brought some good (and some not-so-good) discussion of the underlying issues with both Herenton’s speech and the way it was reported.

Near the end of that thread, Thomas acknowledged that Herenton said some things in his speech that she agreed with, but “the message that filtered out was problematic”.

That message was largely driven by quotes posted by Mike Matthews of Local 24 here, here, here, here, and here.

I’m not here to beat up on Matthews. Herenton did say all the things he reported and posted on Facebook. But the quotes don’t go to the major themes of Herenton’s message…rather those “passing phrases” that I talked about earlier.

By focusing on the more explosive sentences uttered by the former Mayor, Matthews gave the false impression that this was his whole message. In fact, his message was much more nuanced. But nuance was completely lost in just a few posts by a trusted member of the media, and not reflected at all in his reporting later that night.

Conclusion

Context matters. While Herenton most certainly said the things he is reported to have said, he also said a whole lot more. Little of the rest of his speech was covered in the report by Matthews on Local 24. This is just one example of a larger problem in local media. While I’ve focused on Matthews, he’s not the only, or even the worst offender as a general statement.

It is the lack of context in reporting generally that plays a big role in public perceptions of the media. By focusing on the explosive headline, rather than the less sexy details, people get the perception that media outlets aren’t being straight with them. This is best expressed in decreased confidence in the media generally over the past two decades.

You’ll note, I haven’t dealt with the full context of Herenton’s speech. For me, that’s not the story anymore, though a deeper exploration of his full speech is certainly warranted. This whole imbroglio serves as a cautionary tale for both the local media, and the public: beware of explosive headlines. In our “fast food” media climate, those headlines are often misleading which ultimately misinform the public and leads to misinformed perceptions of important events in our community.

Local news has to do better, and be better.  As a former TV producer, I get that weekends, especially around a holiday, are a ghost town with few resources. This is a management issue that should be corrected. The lack of resources doesn’t give reporters or outlets a pass on delivering complete coverage. Even if you choose to lead with the explosive headline, you have a duty to cover the story completely and correctly.  Unfortunately, Local 24 and Matthews didn’t go there in this case.

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