We need to have a serious talk about Ferguson. But first we need to ignore the media.

For months the conversation about Ferguson, Missouri has been less about Michael Brown and more about the community’s reaction to his death and now the decision to not indict officer Darren Wilson. And even that conversation has focused more on the sensational elements and images of the destruction of property and looting by people who are more interested in creating trouble than actual justice or peace.

The images are stark: burning buildings and vehicles, smashed windows, people running with armloads of shoes or liquor, the police in military gear firing tear gas at crowds to disperse them — at times it looks more like war zone than an American suburb.

Depending on your world view, these images are a statement on the way things are: the militarization of the police, the failure of a culture to corral their children, racism in the police state, race riots incited by profiteers, the beginning of a revolution, a sign that we aren’t a post racial society, and on and on and on. There are conversations that must be had on this range of issues because all are rooted in this nation’s at times troubled history. Even though these are issues that can incite rage and emotions that are hard to keep in check on both sides, these conversations must level, rational, and tempered.

They must also happen within context. Our first fault is beginning any conversation based on the media’s reporting on Ferguson. Too often people are making broad statements merely based on the images coming out of Ferguson and the media’s sensationalized coverage of the events and aftermath. To hear CNN, Fox News or MSNBC say it, the entire town of Ferguson is burning, people are invading their neighbor’s homes, and the entire community is nothing but hoodlums who have no respect for the property and security of others. At least, that’s the impression many get based off of constant images of burning buildings, tear gas, car flippings, and lootings.

This is leading to a good many people making generalized statements about the community or black culture in general. References to “hoodlums,” “animals,” “gangsters,” or simply attacks on not just individuals but entire portions of society dismiss the concerns of those who are trying to organize and protest peacefully – a Constitutionally protected right – and gives more attention to the select few who are taking advantage of a situation for personal gain. Those who want justice and peace aren’t the ones smashing a McDonalds of flipping a police cruiser. They’re the silent majority who are being punished for the actions of a few.

But even those few, they aren’t unique to Ferguson. Nor are they unique to black culture. Nor are they unique to taking advantage of political and criminal justice situations.

Take sporting events for example. A team wins or loses a big game. The result? Often, it ends up looking a lot like Ferguson.

Closer to home, when VCU lost to Butler in the Final Four in 2011, the media covered “riots” in Richmond which saw small fires and windows smashed and involved tear gas and rubber bullets in response. ESPN’s coverage spent half the article highlighting police fighting back a rowdy crowd.

When Connecticut won a week or so later and things were actually set on fire there was a small blip but otherwise nothing. “Minor property damage” ESPN reported of a fire, overturned car, and crowd throwing bottles at police officers.

Of course a southern urban campus would riot. A Connecticut college town? Nah, minor disturbance…

There was no breathless wall-to-wall 24-hour news cycle coverage of these events. Eighteen CNN reporters weren’t embedded around town to talk to each other about the same stuff for hours on end. No one asked why people were so angry. No one asked what was wrong with our children. No one said entire portions of American society were hoodlums or animals or uneducated or violent.

Tough conversations have to be had within communities and between them. There are core problems on all sides that must be addressed. But we must take a step back and consider the source when starting any argument based off of the coverage of an event by the mainstream media.

Don’t start the conversation based off of select images meant to sensationalize and event.

Don’t perpetuate the “if it bleeds, it leads” coverage that further divides us and drives us away from thoughtful communications necessary to bridge the gap.

Don’t allow yourself to cheery pick the facts that best support your predetermine view while ignoring anything that contradicts.

Don’t start the conversation from a place of stereotypes.

Don’t let the actions of a few determine your opinion of the many.

Don’t allow yourself to cherry pick the times when you want to believe the MSM while ignoring the times its bias harms your position.

And don’t let the media tell you how to think.