The Washington Post

How people woke up to the situation in Ferguson

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Michael Brown was shot and killed on Saturday, Aug. 9. The response to this — an unarmed black teenager shot dead by a white police officer — was fairly immediate, as people gathered Saturday and again Monday to protest in response to Brown’s death.

However, while there was some attention paid in various media (traditional and social), the situation in Ferguson did not seem to truly emerge into the larger public consciousness until Monday morning, as news spread that rioting and looting had broken out Sunday night. Even then, and even as police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at residents, Ferguson still felt like it was a story many people were watching rather than the story that everyone was talking about.

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That changed Wednesday night, as the confrontations between residents and a heavily armed police force took a considerable turn. A fourth night of police donning riot gear and launching tear gas, coupled with two reporters being arrested, drew a new volume of attention. Beginning on Wednesday night and into Thursday, it was clear that something had shifted, as Ferguson became the dominant story of the moment; President Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. weighed in, as did other state officials.

Media attention doesn’t inherently reflect the public discourse or the growth of public interest in a story, nor does social media chatter translate to widespread actual knowledge of or thoughts on a particular topic. However, it is still illustrative to see how coverage of the story on cable news networks and chatter on the only social network that matters during breaking news situations (Twitter) grew and promptly exploded during this first week of Ferguson:

Now, some of this is based on the recursive loop of media attention. A lot of people tweet about something, therefore people at cable news networks (who are on Twitter) see the story and decide to cover it; cable news networks decide to cover something, therefore people will turn around and tweet about it. At the same time, it’s worthwhile to see the coverage and reactions churn and spike, providing an EKG-like graph of human interest in a story.

Mark Berman covers national news for The Washington Post and anchors Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and stories from around the country.

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