Conflicting sources in Ferguson

Venn diagram with good source criteria

A diagram by the author, created for first-year courses. Click image for a link to the PDF version.

I tell my college students to evaluate a source before they use it in a paper. Before they trust it to tell them the truth.

Around Ferguson, Mo., trust and truth evade me.

Questions on page 196 of the textbook in my critical reading and writing class suggest a formula to determine reliability. It’s a blue box with a list of questions, the kind savvy media consumers ask, like How did you find it? Who authored it?  Where was it published? Subsequent pages offer a chart to help crunch your answers (if you found it in a peer-reviewed journal or government website, that’s a good sign; if a retail website published it, that’s not so good).

I often distribute my own condensed guide, shown above. I sometimes talk about my experiences as a white, hearing, Jewish woman and how this relates to how I see, react to, and generate rhetoric.

What the public accepts about what happened in Ferguson: On August 9, a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager.

Some sources the public has about the event:

-A transcript of a detective’s interview with police officer Darren Wilson, who shot Michael Brown

-An interview with Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown that day, in an MSNBC video

-Accounts from other eyewitnesses–who saw it from cars, a balcony, the street–used in Wilson’s grand jury hearing.

I found these online, from media outlets I trust, mediated only by those asking the questions.

Other considerations include:
-American history


-Law enforcement trends and protocols






Questions I’m left with:

When a police officer encountered two young men walking in the middle of the road, who first used the f-word?

Who initiated the physical altercation between Brown and Wilson?

Did Wilson fire at Brown and Johnson as they were retreating?

Why did Wilson get out of the car in the first place?

Did the teenager turn around to lunge at the police officer? (If he did, was that cause to shoot–again?)

Accounts conflict.

I couldn’t give a multiple choice quiz on which accounts to trust or how to understand this situation.

Then there’s the part where the situation changes. Johnson has lawyered up, and appeared in later interviews with a clean-cut look and more detailed story.  Brown’s church was burned. Ferguson supporters brought back a local business. Wilson got married, told an interviewer he gave up on a law enforcement career, and is expecting a baby. And now he’s resigned.

And here’s a simple posting by The New York Times on November 25:

Here are documents and evidence presented to the grand jury in Clayton, Mo., that was deciding whether to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the August shooting of Michael Brown. The documents were released by the St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert P. McCulloch.

“Note:” the introduction goes on to say, “Some of the documents contain graphic language.”

You can find the documents here. I’m not so concerned about the graphic language. I note that the testimonies, all presumably given under oath, conflict.

Or you can start with a few of those accounts here.

Sometimes I feel like a hypocrite peddling the notion of information literacy. On one hand, I urge students to seek the most credible sources, and not let biased or skewed accounts fool them. On the other hand, I have to tell them about the blurry line between truth and lie (or misunderstanding, or intentional omission, or covert opinion, or injustice built into systems we trust)–even with a textbook and knowledgeable librarians and the World Wide Web at our disposal. Even when the testimonies begin with “nothing but the truth, so help me God.”

Can’t this all resolve like the last 10 minutes of a TV crime drama? Shouldn’t one be able to solve for this,  like the x in an algebra equation?

Monday’s lesson: The columns won’t always add up.

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