W. Joseph Campbell

Thoughts on why journalists can get it badly wrong

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on November 27, 2010 at 6:34 am

I mentioned in a blog post yesterday the Time magazine essay about journalists getting it wrong.

It’s a fine and thoughtful discussion, written by Kathryn Schulz, who maintains: “Reporters make serious mistakes routinely, and we do so not because we are immoral, but because of the nature of journalism, and of the human mind.”

Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, refers in the essay to what she says are “two rich sources of error”–the echo-chamber effect and “the double whammy of journalism’s shrinking profit margin and growing news hole.”

As an example of the first, she describes what in effect is the phenomenon of inter-media agenda-setting, which I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

Inter-media agenda-setting typically occurs when large news organizations with resources to cover events far from home effectively set the news agenda for smaller outlets. “Journalists,” Schulz writes in the Time essay, “…often just replicate one another’s conclusions.

“That goes some way toward explaining how the massive myth of Pfc. Jessica Lynch’s Iraq heroics grew out of a single inaccurate story in the Washington Post.”

It’s refreshing to see such an acknowledgement.

As I’ve periodically noted at Media Myth Alert, the singular role of the Washington Post in propelling Lynch into unimagined and undeserved fame has receded in favor of the false narrative that accuses the Pentagon of having concocted the hero-warrior story about Lynch in Iraq to bolster Americans’ support for the war.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the Pentagon wasn’t the source for the botched report in the Post about Lynch’s supposed heroics. The U.S. military was loath to discuss Lynch’s reputed derring-do. And yet, the false story line has since become entrenched as the dominant narrative about the Lynch case.

In writing about “the double whammy of journalism’s shrinking profit margin and growing news hole,” Schulz points out that thorough investigations cost news organizations a lot in time and money, but that reporters these days “increasingly resemble doctors in an understaffed emergency room, working under immense time pressure with inadequate resources.

“Those conditions,” she adds, “are not exactly conducive to the stodgy, time-consuming business of accuracy: verifying quotes, contacting additional sources, fact-checking claims.”

I’m not so sure about that: Why wouldn’t the reality of time pressures make fact-checking even more imperative in newsrooms? Blaming times pressures of course doesn’t exonerate journalists or excuse them from their errors.

The observation is reminiscent of excuses offered for the highly exaggerated, over-the-top reporting about mayhem and violence in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Telecommunication networks were down. Telephone service was out. Cell phones didn’t function. Electricity was scarce.

But as I write in Getting It Wrong, those conditions do not let journalists off the hook for the inaccurate reporting about the horrific violence supposedly unleashed by the hurricane.

“It would not have been unreasonable for the collapse of communication networks to have given reporters pause, leaving them more cautious and more wary about what they heard and reported, and thus less likely to traffic in wild and dubious claims” of apocalyptic violence in Katrina’s immediate aftermath, I point out in the book.

Schulz mentions the flawed reporting of the hurricane, referring in her essay to “the quasi-hysterical coverage of Katrina: the uncritical regurgitation by reporters of claims of mass murder, children being raped, gang wars in the Superdome.”

And she notes the Katrina-related research I discuss in Getting It Wrong, writing:

“Those claims proved hyperbolic to the point of sheer invention: according to journalist W. Joseph Campbell in Getting It Wrong, only six people died in the Superdome (four of natural causes, one of a drug overdose, one an apparent suicide), and not a single claim of sexual assault was ever substantiated.”

Indeed.

To Schulz’s short list of the causes of major error in journalism, I would add, at a minimum, the fog of war.

I note in Getting It Wrong that it’s scarcely surprising that war and conflict can be breeding grounds for media-driven myth. After all, I write, “The stakes in war are quite high, and the shock of combat is alien and unfamiliar to most people.

“Given their limited first-hand experience with war, media audiences usually find themselves in no position to challenge reports from the battlefield. The confusion and intensity inherent in warfare can lead journalists to place fragmented information that emerges from conflict into recognizable if sometimes misleading frames.”

The Lynch case is one of a number of war-related myths addressed and debunked in Getting It Wrong.

WJC

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