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USA Today Tried To Pin Shooting of Cops in Ferguson on Protesters

Ferguson protester held in shooting

Here's the headline (3/16/15) over the lead story in USA Today (daily circulation: 4.1 million):

Ferguson Protester Held in Shooting

Online, the headline (3/15/15) was basically the same:

Protester Charged With Shooting Officers in Ferguson

These headlines echo reporter John Bacon's lead–though you'll note that in the lead, the information that suspect Jeffrey Williams is a "protester" is attributed to "authorities," rather than stated as fact:

A 20-year-old protester has been charged with shooting two police officers in Ferguson, Mo., last week, authorities said Sunday.

County prosecutor Robert McCulloch is paraphrased as saying Williams "was involved in the demonstration that was wrapping up when the incident took place"–though one of the charges against him is "firing a weapon from a vehicle," which is an unusual place to be if you're taking part in a protest.

But later, eight paragraphs into the front-page story, we learn that–contrary to the headline–Williams may not have been a protester after all:

Bishop Derrick Robinson of the Kingdom Destiny Fellowship International, who has been an organizer of Ferguson protests, later told CNN he spoke with Williams — and that Williams said he was not involved in protests. He said Williams told him the shooting occurred after he had been robbed by an unknown assailant.

Robinson's account of what Williams told him meshes with what the suspect reportedly told police: "McCulloch said Williams admitted firing the shots but said he was shooting at someone else." In a video that accompanies the story, McCulloch says, "It's possible at this point that he was firing shots at someone other than the police, but struck the police officers."

It's obviously a critical political question whether the two cops–both of whom survived the shooting–were victims of a "protester" or were merely bystanders to a crime that had nothing to do with police. Leaping to a conclusion in the headline is not only irresponsible, it serves to lower the pressure on police to do something about the pattern of racial discrimination the protests have exposed.

But then, this is the paper that spun statistics to make it seem like shootings of police were soaring when they were actually relatively low (FAIR Blog, 12/22/14)–and ran this headline as police in Ferguson were attacking protesters and arresting journalists:

Reprinted with permission from Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting.

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