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Ferguson, ethics, and the public intellectual

Randall F. Clemens

Originally published at

During the 1890s, newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst competed against each other to sell more papers. They printed sensationalist stories accompanied with fear-inducing headlines and vivid, provocative pictures. Journalists eschewed facts for melodrama. At the height of yellow journalism, the two newspaper tycoons published stories that contributed to the United States’ involvement in the Spanish-American War. 

Fast-forward 120 years. In Ferguson, Missouri, a 28-year-old white police officer shoots an 18-year-old black man. Residents protest. Droves of reporters travel to Ferguson. Over three months later, following months of unrest and anticipating even more, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declares a state of emergency. One week afterwards, a grand jury decides not to indict the police officer with criminal charges. Violent and nonviolent protests escalate. Journalists chase and film rioters. They flood newspapers, television channels, and social media with panic-inducing stories and images. Cable channels cut from out-of-breath reporters in the field to argumentative talking heads in the studio.

The media has largely influenced the ways in which the public talks and thinks about Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent protests. Rather than facilitating civil, fact-based exchanges, they encourage vehement, opinion-based disagreement. Their actions starkly differ from the ethics of journalism, which include pursuing truth, reporting accurately, and limiting harm. If there is such a thing as a 21st century public sphere—a place where we can intellectually discuss important social issues—the media is corrupting it.

What, then, is the role of academics? Consider some of the ethical concerns of researchers: beneficence, respect, and justice. While we typically discuss those ideals in terms of the conduct of research, we may also consider them in relation to when and how scholars participate in public forums. 

Stated more simply, while talking heads whip up racist antagonism and blame individuals, research is resolute. Young men of color disproportionately experience gun violence. A discriminatory police state surveils low-income neighborhoods. We have established clearer pathways from school to prison than school to college. And, due to a lack of opportunities, concentrated and generational poverty has spread among individuals of color.

While sitting in Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote, “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” We have few forums to thoughtfully and critically discuss the pursuit of social justice and the existence of injustice in the United States. Scholars have an ethical responsibility to assume an increased role in public discourse, to illuminate the pressing causes and consequences of injustice, and to help imagine opportunities for social justice in the 21st century.