If you’ve been paying attention to political news or have been on Twitter recently, you likely haven’t missed some of January’s biggest stories. The first was the inevitable beginning of President Trump’s impeachment and removal from office, while the next seemed to bring about people’s worst fears of cultural intolerance in America. However, despite the uproar and mob mentality seen on social media, neither story was factually stable.
The craziness started in mid-January when Buzzfeed News released a stunning report that Trump had instructed Michael Cohen, his former attorney, to lie to Congress during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigations into the Trump Administration and possible interference during the 2016 elections. Countless journalists took the story and ran with it, and by the next day several members of Congress were openly calling for the president’s impeachment. The social media backlash toward the president was fierce, to say the least.
But that same night, Mueller’s office made the incredibly rare decision to comment on the story, simply calling Buzzfeed’s report “not accurate.” It goes without saying that this was a massive blow to the story’s credibility, as well as Buzzfeed News’ reputation.
During the hoopla surrounding the Buzzfeed story, the news cycle brought up another story that many journalists and political commentators latched onto quickly. It was a short video that appeared to show a group of white male high school students from Covington Catholic High School in Ky., most wearing Trump’s trademark “Make America Great Again” hats, surrounding and mocking a Native American elder who had been part of an Indigenous People’s rally that day. The students were in the nation’s capital to participate in the annual March for Life event, which took place that morning.
Anger and controversy formed quickly, and mob rule mentality formed once again on social media platforms with some reporters calling for the expulsion of the students involved, and a few others going as far as demanding that the names and addresses of the students be released to the public. But just like the Buzzfeed story, things got more complicated.
Within a couple days, the full two-hour long video was released. The initial video was just a small part of this. The full video clearly showed Nathan Phillips, the Native American elder, approaching the students and not the other way around. Sure enough, in a CNN interview, Phillips later described his actions as a way to get between the students and a group from the Black Hebrew Israelites. This fringe religious group had been hurling racial slurs and insults at the Covington students for over an hour. It was then found that several students who were “identified” from the video were not even in Washington, D.C. that day and many Covington High School students and their families have been doxxed, harassed and even sent death threats over the past two weeks.
Additionally, there’s absolutely no proof that the students disrupted an Indigenous People’s event, as some reporters first suggested. As expected, the backlash against the story has been strong from nearly all sides of the political spectrum. Reporters from mainstream news sites such as USA Today, The Washington Post and the New York Times have had to issue redactions and apologies to the students for the poor reporting on the story. However, many believe that any apologies won’t make up for the undeserved long term impacts that many of the students will likely face due to the confrontation. In a recent development, a defamation lawsuit has even been filed by the school against dozens of reporters and Twitter has reportedly banned at least a dozen accounts for pushing the story.
Without a doubt, these were major failures on the part of the mainstream media to report an accurate story. To make matters worse, these incomplete stories were treated as gospel by online figures, who have often proven to be perfectly OK with spreading false narratives, so long as the stories advance a political agenda of their choice. Putting politics aside, many unanswered questions remain.
Why weren’t reporters cautious about putting out a “bombshell” story when there were major gaps in the story? Why did news organizations push a narrative induced story that could negatively disrupt the lives of many people before checking facts first? These questions probably can’t be answered, but one thing is for certain: in a world of “fake news” and steadily decreasing trust in the media, journalists and news organizations need to make a strong case for themselves. So far, they are failing.
The views expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of The Torch.