2014 NYT Michael Brown Profile Critique

A piece published on August 24, 2014 and written by John Eligon for The New York Times sparked debate, but debates and disagreements were commonplace in this particular case.

Over a year later, the name of the 18 year old man who was shot to death by a police officer in the middle of a street in Ferguson, MO is a household name. This name is Michael Brown. In the year that has past since the protests (peaceful and violent), riots, looting and general outrage of that particular time in our nation’s history has, in the most extreme cases, abated.  But where does that leave us? It leaves us with lingering emotions toward the case (whether one agrees with the court decision to not charge the police officer, Darren Wilson, or not). The name, Michael Brown is one that is equated with a turning point in cases of police brutality and racism.

During the media flurry and chaos in the weeks following the shooting, the New York Times published profiles of both Brown and Wilson, alongside one another on their front page. This seemingly reasonable and progressive move by the newspaper was met with extreme criticism of the way that Brown was depicted by the article’s author. Given, this was a profile, so the author, Eligon, was allowed more leeway than would have usually been accepted of a normal article. However, upon reading the profile it is quite clear that Eligon truly believes that Brown was the phrase that he used to describe him: “No Angel.” Although these two words are what began the outcry, they are merely a catchphrase for the rest of the profile’s tone.  Eligon pairs seemingly unimportant facts about Brown (for example, that he played the drums as a child) with hear-say from neighbors that claim to have known Brown for getting into fights. This poor attempt at objectivity is a recurring theme throughout the article. After briefly discussing his own family’s support and assurance that, “Michael was so cool that he could just get along with anybody,” Eligon sites Facebook posts from Brown. Quotes such as, “how yo own family dont wanna see you do good,” not only make Brown out to be ignorant, but a troubled teen. These posts, while they may be troubling to his family, would be seen by most as the rantings of a frustrated teenager. However, their contextual placement in this article and in this heated case, leads the reader to believe that they contain insidious undertones. Had this particular teen’s life not been outrageously publicized due to his death by a police officer, these Facebook posts would be disregarded as well as the implications of Brown’s criminal activity. Eligon eludes to Brown being involved with drugs, alcohol and, “had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar.” Again, outside of a highly publicized case such as this, these are the activities of a normal teenager.

Since the overarching controversy in this particular case was racism, I must give credit where credit is due; Eligon did a decent job of keeping race out of his profile. Aside from his descriptions, his insinuations that Brown was a bad kid were not connected to his race. However, calling Brown, “No Angel” on the day of his funeral was simply bad taste. The New York Times follow-up piece by Margaret Sullivan responding to the controversy did no good in my opinion. While conceding that the wording could have been different, in her article, Sullivan asserts that Eligon’s work is still good journalism. I disagree. Any journalist, journalism student, or consumer of the news knows that a good journalist keeps his/her own opinion out of their writing, unless they are writing an editorial, or some other piece where opinion is allowed. In any case, but especially in a case that had caused so much outrage, the editors of the times should have picked this “profile” apart. I did not learn much about Brown from his profile, and isn’t that what a profile should do? It should tell each side of the story, which I believe was the original intent. However, due to what I hope was an oversight, the New York Times let their reporter’s opinion be printed on the front page of one of the most widely read newspapers in the world.


Original NYT Article