Jacques: Fake news? Media earn insult

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

“Nick Sandmann and the students of Covington have become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be.”

That recent tweet from President Donald Trump sums up accurately an embarrassing week for journalism.

Members of the media hate this insult, and bristle whenever they hear it -- especially when it comes from the president.

Yet sometimes Trump -- and his supporters who similarly distrust the mainstream media -- get it exactly right.

The incident Trump references in the tweet was a particularly low point for the press. Last Friday, a “standoff” caught on video of teens supposedly harassing a Native American in Washington, D.C., went viral.

The reality turned out to be much more complicated. But the media couldn’t resist the narrative they were determined to be true: privileged, white, male teens from a Catholic school demonstrating their racial bias and hatred. The Kentucky youths were visiting the nation’s capital for the March for Life, also making them a target.

And to cap it off, they wore bright red Make America Great Again hats.

In this Jan. 18, 2019, image made from video provided by the Survival Media Agency, a teenager wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, center left, stands in front of an elderly Native American singing and playing a drum in Washington.

For liberal members of the media, what’s not to hate?

It turns out, the context in that initial story was missing (surprise, surprise). In the rush to seize on a juicy tale, the media forgot one of its most essential roles: Get the story right.

Tom Jones, a senior media writer at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, says the 24/7 news cycle and the flood of social media place a lot of pressure on the press.

“You don’t want to get left behind, even if you can’t confirm the story,” Jones says. “It’s a pretty dangerous time for the media.”

It’s also dangerous for the people who are hurt in misleading or factually inaccurate reports. The repercussions are real when journalists propagate untrue stories. For Sandmann, who is 16 and has become the face of this incident, that has meant threats of violence and other harm from strangers, including unhinged celebrities and social media personalities.

Regardless of the actual facts, this story will likely follow Sandmann for the rest of his life. The internet is a permanent place.

Thank goodness for reporters like Reason’s Robby Soave, who took the time to watch nearly two hours of video footage of the encounter and worked to correct the initial misleading stories.

“Various media figures and Twitter users called for (the teens) to be doxed, shamed, or otherwise punished, and school administrators said they would consider expulsion,” Soave writes. “But the rest of the video ...adds important context that strongly contradicts the media's narrative.”

The Age of Trump has definitely brought out the media’s worst instincts, but this kind of careless behavior is not new. In 2014, Rolling Stone published a story claiming a young woman was gang-raped by fraternity brothers at the University of Virginia. That story proved to be false, and the magazine paid the price for its lack of due diligence in having to retract its story, as well as settle with fraternity students who sued. The same thing happened a decade earlier when members of the Duke Lacrosse team were wrongly accused of rape.

These cases also played into tempting narratives of white privilege, much as this latest one did. But they were false.

As Jones observed this week: “We need the whole story. We need to know the facts. Until then, the hot take that is too soon, too irresponsible and too uninformed is the real black eye on the media.”