Rhetoric in Media: Examining Ferguson (Part 2)

Sarah Paterson ENG-PWR ‘15

This is part two of a two-part series on rhetoric in media. To read part one, click here.

On Monday, we looked at ways three different print/online news outlets presented the conflict in Ferguson. Today, we’re going to look at television and social media – since that’s how many people get their news and shape their opinions – from three different perspectives: Fox News, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and Twitter.


Fox News

Fox News somewhat famously caters to a more conservative viewership. Cable news shows exist both to inform and to entertain viewers – relying on ad revenue to stay on the air requires hosts to be interesting, engaging, and occasionally controversial. The clip below comes from a Fox News panel talk show called “The Five,” which is the second most-watched program in all of cable news:

The tone of this panel show is frank and conversational, and presents many perspectives on Ferguson to the viewers. It includes video clips from other news networks, as well as cell phone footage and other photos and clips to compile information and to develop credibility for its audience. The personalities on the panel, and their various levels of engagement with the issue provide pathos – they allow watchers to side with them, or to consider whether or not they agree or disagree with the hosts’ perspectives. Often these hosts use what we might consider deliberative or epideictic rhetoric – they are encouraging action or praising/blaming those involved in a hot-button issue.


Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Last Week Tonight, a comedic news show in the mold of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, airs on Sunday nights for HBO subscribers. As it airs commercial-free, it is easier for host John Oliver to make longer speeches and to include more in-depth analysis on any given issue. The following fifteen-minute clip aired in mid-August and shortly after went viral once it was posted to YouTube:

The program’s format allows Oliver to include clips from other news shows, photographs, and examples of official documents to develop his credibility. Like Fox News, Oliver uses pathos to appeal to his viewers – he uses humor to engage and appeal to his audience, as well as to educate them. Unlike Fox News, however, he is able to use clips and language that might be considered inappropriate for a broad network audience. Oliver has a more liberal stance than Fox News, and it is presumed that most of his regular audience already agrees with him. He rarely tries to present many sides of an issue; instead, he uses his platform to draw attention to issues and to encourage his audience to think about these issues in new ways. Similar to the Fox News panel, it could be said that Oliver is using deliberative or epideictic rhetoric here.



In times of major conflict, as in the Arab Spring riots at the beginning of the decade, Twitter becomes a primary source of news reporting as it allows individuals to get messages out immediately and without gatekeepers. It also allows for posters to add pictures or video to a message.

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 7.22.56 PM

For Twitter users, time is of the essence. While Twitter was instrumental in getting news out about what was happening on the ground in Ferguson at the time of the riots, people have been posting non-stop to the Ferguson hashtag for the last month and a half. It is difficult to find information about what happened in early/mid-August without scrolling through pages and pages of new tweets. Some more important tweets have been screenshotted and reposted on other websites since the shooting and early riots happened, but many have been lost to the constant updating feed. Including photos and videos shows that the tweeter is present at the situation and that what they are saying is true, and establishes ethos for their reports.



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One Comment

  1. Posted September 17, 2014 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    Throughout this two part series, I gained a lot of insight into the structural differences of these various news sources as well as the ways in which these differences in structure affect the coverage of Ferguson. When Sarah was explaining how the New York Times covered it, I was not shocked since I had read many of its articles on Ferguson, but I was saddened by the fact that they did not make follow-up or the past articles readily available to viewers. By pointing out which news sources still featured articles, or at least still linked to past articles, Sarah also illuminated how much each source still believes this issue is relevant—how much each source sees more deeply into this event and its implications on the society from a structural standpoint. It is really interesting to consider how the rhetorical decision to have a “hot topic” button like with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch or even the “Flashpoint Ferguson” in Al Jazeera can make such a big difference. People will be able to remember this event and will be forced to think more deeply about other perspectives and future implications.

    One of my favorite points that Sarah made was while she was discussing Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. I liked how she pointed out that he used pathos to draw his viewers in and was not afraid to add a humorous element, nor did he shy away from stating his opinion. Many times, I think part of the reason that rhetoric gets the bad rap that Sarah mentioned is because people only think of it as a devious or negative tool used only to try to coerce others into believing what you said. In fact, as Sarah so eloquently puts it in reference to John Oliver, he “rarely tries to present many sides of an issue; instead, he uses his platform to draw attention to issues and to encourage his audience to think about these issues in new ways.” So what if rhetorical decisions lead to people considering your position—that’s the point! Sometimes people need a reason to consider another side to the issue, especially with the Ferguson case.