W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Disaster coverage’

For the media, Harvey was no Katrina redux; here’s why

In Anniversaries, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on September 2, 2017 at 10:58 am

Twelve years ago today, newspaper headlines across the United States told of chaos and anarchy that supposedly was sweeping New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating landfall.

Katrina churns, 2005

“Anger, Anarchy, Desperation,” declared the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle of  September 2, 2005.

“Crisis to Chaos,” said the Scottsdale Tribune in Arizona. “Toward Anarchy,” cried the Waterbury Republican in Connecticut. “Descent into Chaos,” asserted the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“Snipers fired on cops and rescue workers” in New Orleans, reported the New York Daily News. “Gangs of looters took anything that wasn’t nailed down.”

In New Orleans, the Times-Picayune newspaper (see image nearby) declared on its front page of September 2, 2005, that “chaos and lawlessness rule the streets.”

The horror and mayhem that news organizations so widely reported 12 years ago proved highly exaggerated, but it had the effect of tainting a city and its residents at a time of their great vulnerability.

As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the reporting of Katrina’s aftermath was no high, heroic moment in American journalism, despite some attempts to characterize it as such.

“In the days following Katrina’s landfall,” I wrote, “news reports described apocalyptic horror that the hurricane supposedly had unleashed. They reported snipers firing at medical personnel. … They told of bodies being stacked there like cordwood. They reported that roving gangs were preying on tourists and terrorizing the occupants of the Superdome [where hundreds of storm evacuees took shelter], raping and killing. They said that children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.

“None of those reports was verified or substantiated.” Little of it was true.

D-minus was a grade none too severe for the post-Katrina coverage.

“Americans depend on timely and accurate reporting, especially during times of crisis,” a bipartisan select committee of the House of Representatives later said in a 600-page report about the hurricane’s aftermath, adding that “accurate reporting was among Katrina’s many victims.

“If anyone rioted,” the report declared, “it was the media. Many stories of rape, murder, and general lawlessness were at best unsubstantiated, at worst simply false.”

It is useful now to recall the erroneous and exaggerated coverage of Katrina’s aftermath because the destructive sweep of Hurricane Harvey in southeast Texas at the end of last month gave rise to little such egregious misreporting and produced few if any examples of the media having “rioted” in their storm coverage.

For news organizations, Harvey was no Katrina.

Here are some reasons why:

• Reasonably competent public officials. In Texas, state and local officials — including the mayor of Houston — were more credible, knowledgeable, and restrained than were senior public officials in New Orleans. Ray Nagin, the then-mayor of New Orleans, and Eddie Compass, the then-police commissioner, were sources for some of the most gruesome yet erroneous reports of lawlessness in Katrina’s immediate aftermath.

At one point, Nagin asserted that “hundreds of armed gang members” were terrorizing evacuees inside the Superdome. The mayor said conditions there had deteriorated to “an almost animalistic state” and evacuees had been “in that frickin’ Superdome for five days, watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.”

Compass spoke of other horrors. “We had little babies in there, little babies getting raped,” the police commissioner said of the Superdome where, he claimed, police officers had been shot and wounded.

Their accounts of violence in New Orleans were widely reported — but were almost completely without foundation. (Months later, Compass said he passed along rumors of violence because he “didn’t want people to think we were trying to cover anything up. So I repeated things without being substantiated, and it caused a lot of problems.”)

By contrast, Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, projected an image of even-tempered authority. He spoke often to the news media, typically in measured and sedate tones. He didn’t preen for the cameras, and certainly didn’t mischaracterize his city as having been seized by violence and lawlessness. The only significant controversy to swirl around Turner was whether he should have ordered a mandatory evacuation as Harvey approached from the Gulf of Mexico.

No narrative-shifting surprises. Katrina’s aftermath marked by a surprising and decisive turn after the storm had passed: Not long after it appeared the city had been spared the hurricane’s worst effects, levees protecting the city began to fail, sending floodwaters across much of New Orleans. That development abruptly shifted news coverage of Katrina from having escaped a close call to something more grim and devastating. New Orleans was mostly under water and rumors of social disintegration, many of which made their way into news reports, soon were circulating.

Harvey was forecast to drop upwards of 50 inches of rain on parts of southeastern Texas, predictions that proved largely accurate. Journalists, at least in broad terms, knew what to expect; the absence of a narrative-altering surprise allowed them to keep story lines trained on storm victims, rescues and evacuations, without having to chase bleak rumors of mayhem and violence.

Principal controversies that arose about post-Harvey coverage focused on questions of media ethics — whether it was appropriate for a reporter to send Twitter messages about what he considered looting, and when a reporter should pull back from an on-camera interview of a clearly distraught storm victim.

Dubious memes were quickly debunked. An image of a shark plying floodwaters in Texas received a brief and apparently credulous mention on the Fox News Channel, but the photograph soon was exposed as fake. For a time, the Washington Post’s “Intersect” blog kept a running list of storm-related hoaxes and exaggerations that appeared on social media. Such compilations helped keep a lid on the over-the-top stuff.

Social media platforms — most of which hadn’t been developed in 2005 — seemed to have performed fairly well, overall. Notably, Facebook and Twitter became in Harvey’s aftermath lifelines for storm victims and their families.

Stirring images. Some of the most memorable photographs of Harvey were not of agony and grim misery (like the Times-Picayune front page of September 2, 2005) but were heartening — such as the one of a Houston police SWAT officer striding in knee-deep flood water, carrying woman who was cradling her 13-month-old son. The image was taken by an Associated Press photographer and became “a symbol of the storm and rescue efforts,” as a Houston television station described it.

AP photo/David J. Phillip

The AP photographer, David J. Phillip, captured another memorable image of the storm — a panorama of a flooded Houston boulevard where a swarm of human forms confronted the waters in a tableau of evident grit, resilience, and aquatic rescue. The photo at once testified to turmoil the hurricane had created and to an absence of turmoil in response.

The post-landfall coverage of Harvey may not have been magnificent, but in all it didn’t merit a D-minus.

I’d give it a B, at least.

WJC

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Social-media triumphalism and its myth-busting limits

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on October 31, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Social media’s capacity to demolish media myths soon after they emerge was impressively on display this week as megastorm Sandy swept ashore in New Jersey and disrupted life throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

Got it notably wrong

Erroneous reports were many as the storm reached the East Coast on Monday. As the Guardian of London noted today, “the spread of such misinformation was abetted by journalists, who were once taught the importance of verifying every source.”

Notably wrong was the report on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight” news program Monday that Sandy had breached the heart of American capitalism and covered the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in Manhattan with three feet of water.

But that account and a similar report on the hype-prone Weather Channel were promptly disputed, and soon repudiated, in a barrage of posts on Twitter.

In demolishing the bogus reports, Twitter demonstrated a capacity for “savage self-correction,” as John Herrman declared in a post yesterday at the BuzzFeed online site.

Herrman wrote:

“In response to thousands of retweets of erroneous Weather Channel and CNN reports that the New York Stock Exchange had been flooded with ‘three feet’ of water, Twitter users, some reporters and many not, were relentless: photos of the outside of the building, flood-free, were posted. Knowledgeable parties weighed in.”

And the misreporting soon was corrected.

Herrman hailed Twitter as “a fact-processing machine on a grand scale, propagating then destroying rumors at a neck-snapping pace. To dwell on the obnoxiousness of the noise is to miss the result: that we end up with more facts, sooner, with less ambiguity.”

His point is well-taken. On more than a few occasions, Twitter has demonstrated a striking capacity to debunk embryonic media myths — including those myths it helped set loose.

The bogus quotation attributed to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King after the slaying last year of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden comes to mind. The made-up passage — “I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy” — circulated widely on Facebook and Twitter before their corrective forces effectively demolished it.

But limits to social-media triumphalism must be noted.  The corrective power of platforms such as Twitter reaches only so far.

Once established, media myths are exceedingly difficult to uproot. These myths have amply demonstrated that they can withstand the power of social media.

Welles and ‘War of the Worlds’

Take, for example, Halloween’s most famous media myth — the notion that Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio dramatization in 1938 touched off nationwide panic and mass hysteria. It’s a hoary media myth that’s just too embedded — and too delicious — to be destroyed.

No amount of Tweeting is likely to dismantle this myth, one of 10 that I debunk in my latest book, Getting It Wrong. It’s too engrained in popular culture — and in the news media — to go the way of CNN’s botched report about the flooded stock exchange floor.

The 74th anniversary of the original broadcast of The War of the Worlds was yesterday and Twitter percolated with reminders about the program and references to the panic it supposedly created. Tweets challenging the narrative of panic and hysteria were in a distinct minority.

Linked to more than a few Tweets yesterday was a tip sheet describing seven lessons that The War of the Worlds dramatization holds for social media.

The tip sheet seems more than a little convoluted, though. Among its observations was this:

“If you are lucky, the publicity often exceeds the actual event  …. The panic [of The War of the Worlds program] has become legendary, even though there is quite a bit of evidence to suggest it wasn’t nearly as widespread as reported at the time. But, it put the program on the map, and launched a relatively unknown 23-year old name[d] Orson Welles into the public eye.”

Even that’s not quite true. Although he was 23 at the time of the broadcast, Welles’ had already made the cover of Time magazine.

WJC

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ABC needs to explain how, why Brian Ross so badly erred

In Debunking, Media myths, Television on July 24, 2012 at 11:59 am

Brian Ross’ stunning error last week linking the suspected Batman-movie shooter to the conservative Tea Party movement has been roundly and appropriately condemned — from Mother Jones to Rush Limbaugh, from the comedian Jon Stewart to the NewsBusters blog.

What’s missing, though, is a thorough, candid, and transparent accounting of what led Ross to proclaim on air that someone sharing the suspected shooter’s name, James Holmes, belonged to the Colorado Tea Party.

Ross, the chief investigative correspondent for ABC News, declared in a brief segment Friday morning, hours after the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado:

“There is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado, page on the Tea Party site as well, talking about him joining the Tea Party last year.

“Now, we don’t know if this is the same Jim Holmes,” Ross said, “but it is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado.”

Ross and the network apologized later Friday morning for the error. In a statement posted online, ABC said:

“An earlier ABC News broadcast report suggested that a Jim Holmes of a Colorado Tea Party organization might be the suspect, but that report was incorrect. ABC News and Brian Ross apologize for the mistake, and for disseminating that information before it was properly vetted.”

It was a vague and empty apology that said nothing specifically to the misidentified Jim Holmes — and offered little insight into circumstances that gave rise to a towering error.

Still unexplained is what prompted Ross — whose online biography says he’s one of America’s “most honored and respected journalists” — to disseminate “information before it was properly vetted.”

So there ought to be a very public explanation for breaching such a fundamental protocol of professional journalism. Ross, and ABC News, ought to clarify, in detail, the circumstances that produced such a staggering lapse.

In a telephone conversation with me this morning, a spokesman for ABC News, Jeffrey W. Schneider, resisted engaging in a detailed discussion about Ross’ error.

“It was a mistake,” Schneider said. “We made it plainly clear it was a mistake. I think there’s been all kinds of speculation about how and why. It was simply an error. We made a human error.”

But why is such a broad acknowledgement of error not enough?

A number of reasons offer themselves.

By not explaining the back story to the error, Ross and ABC News have left themselves open to suspicions that political bias immediately and instinctively drove them to suspect a Tea Party connection to the shootings that left 12 people dead.

Rightly or wrongly, that conclusion has been reached often in the days since the shooting.

For example, John Kass of the Chicago Tribune  wrote in a column Sunday: “How long does it take for a major American television news network to politicize mass murder and blame conservatives for the blood of innocents?

“Not long.”

What’s more, by not specifying the circumstances that led to the stunning lapse, Ross and ABC News have effectively deprived serious-minded journalists and media audiences of an opportunity to understand the derivation of error and misjudgment of the kind that can blight the coverage of major breaking stories.

There is more than thumbsucking interest in understanding, at a granular level, why and how the news media get it so badly wrong.

Error-plagued coverage happens often enough: Consider, as another recent example, the wrongheaded early reports by CNN and FoxNews about the Supreme Court’s frankly baffling ruling on the constitutionality of ObamaCare.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, news reporting in the first hours of a dramatic event often is in error, owing in part to the swirl of rumor and confusion that typically accompanies a major breaking story.

And as Kass wrote, “when you add political bias to the rush of breaking news, as seems to have happened here, things get stinky.”

And worse.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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Slow to learn: Lesson for journos in Brian Ross’ egregious error on ABC

In Debunking, Media myths, Television on July 20, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Brian Ross’ appalling error linking the Tea Party movement to the suspected Batman-movie shooter in Colorado demonstrates anew how slow journalists can be in grasping an elementary lesson of disaster coverage: Resist temptation to report more than you can immediately verify.

In the hours just after a disaster, journalists tend to be especially prone to error and imprecision, as Ross, the chief investigative correspondent for ABC News, amply demonstrated in declaring today on Good Morning America:

“There is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado, page on the Tea Party site as well, talking about him joining the Tea Party last year.

“Now, we don’t know if this is the same Jim Holmes,” Ross added, “but it is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colo.”

The suspect arrested in the shootings early today at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, is named James Holmes. But he is not the “Jim Holmes” to whom Ross referred, and the suspected killer has no known connections to the grassroots Tea Party movement, which advocates restraints in government spending.

It soon was clear that Ross’ speculative remarks associating the killer with the Tea Party were in error. ABC News offered an apology — an apology that raised important unanswered questions:

“An earlier ABC News broadcast report suggested that a Jim Holmes of a Colorado Tea Party organization might be the suspect, but that report was incorrect. ABC News and Brian Ross apologize for the mistake, and for disseminating that information before it was properly vetted.”

But how did that happen? How did Ross — a veteran television reporter whose ABC biography unabashedly declares him “one of the most honored and respected journalists in the country” — come to disseminate “information before it was properly vetted”?

ABC’s apology didn’t say.

It may have been that Ross was excessively eager to be first in reporting a linkage to a conservative political movement. He may have been unable to restrain his ideological inclinations. He may have been misled by a producer.

Whatever the reason, his error on a television program that attracts 4.5 million viewers was inexcusable — and eminently preventable.

In the swirling uncertainty that invariably marks the hours after a disaster, journalists are well-served to show deliberation and restraint, to be mindful that error and distortion often blight the first reports of dramatic events.

I discuss this phenomenon in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, noting that “it is a near-certainty that erroneous reports will circulate in a disaster’s immediate aftermath.”

I also point out in Getting It Wrong:

“By recognizing that implausible rumors and exaggerated casualty tolls almost always are among the first effects of major disasters, journalists may spare themselves considerable embarrassment and their audiences great confusion.”

Getting It Wrong revisits the badly flawed news reporting of Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans in 2005 — which offers enduring if unlearned lessons for journalists about the near-certainty of error in disaster coverage.

The reporting about Katrina’s destructive assault, I write, “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong.”

I note:

“They reported snipers firing at medical personnel. They reported that shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center [in New Orleans].

“They told of bodies being stacked there like cordwood. They reported roving gangs were preying on tourists and terrorizing the occupants of the Superdome, raping and killing. They said children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.”

In the end, none of those reports was verified or substantiated.

Other examples of erroneous news reports about unfolding disasters are not difficult to find.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, “initial and worst-case estimates of disaster casualties almost always are exaggerated. This happened in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City, offering a ready point of reference for reporters covering Katrina’s aftermath. The initial estimates of 10,000 deaths in New York were considerably overstated.”

Early reports about the attacks of September 11, 2001, also were distorted by error — by accounts, for example, of a car bombing at State Department, of military aircraft downing a hijacked plane near Camp David.

All too often, the news media are disinclined to revisit their disaster-coverage lapses and account for the errors. Such was the case in Katrina’s aftermath, when news organizations offered at best feeble and one-off explanations for their flawed and exaggerated reporting.

Ross and ABC News owe their viewers nothing less than a thorough and candid accounting for their error today.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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No, really: Ray Nagin sought out for advice on hurricane prep

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths on August 28, 2011 at 2:37 am

What a joke.

Nagin in New Orleans

As Hurricane Irene churned toward the East Coast of the United States, MSNBC brought on Ray Nagin, the former mayor of New Orleans, for insights about storm preparations.

In introducing Nagin, MSNBC anchor Martin Bashir declared:

“Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin joins us to explain what leaders must do to avoid the mistakes that were made six years ago” when Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast.

Nagin, a preparedness authority?

Hardly.

Not only did Nagin fumble the local response to Hurricane Katrina (remember the yellow school buses, all neatly parked and submerged by flood waters?). He contributed significantly to the terribly misleading notion that in the storm’s aftermath, the city was swept by mayhem and lawlessness.

As I point out in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Nagin offered up  what proved to be highly exaggerated estimates of Katrina-related deaths in New Orleans.

He said the toll could reach 10,000.

Deaths attributed to the hurricane in Louisiana were a little more than 1,000.

What’s more, I note in Getting It Wrong, “Nagin and the city’s police commissioner, Eddie Compass, were sources for some of the most shocking and exaggerated reports about the disaster.”

During an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s television talk show on September 6, 2005, Nagin said “hundreds of armed gang members” were terrorizing storm evacuees inside the Louisiana Superdome.

Nagin said conditions at the Superdome had deteriorated to “an almost animalistic state” and evacuees “in that frickin’ Superdome for five days, watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.”

Nagin was winging it on national television. And smearing his city in the process.

(It deserves noting that Nagin was criticized in a bipartisan Congressional report about the responses to Katrina. The report, issued in 2006 and titled A Failure of Initiative, pointed out that the mayor had “repeated unsubstantiated rumors before the national media, creating an exaggerated image of utter lawlessness.”)

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Nagin’s descriptions “were widely reported — and proved to be almost totally without foundation. In all, six people died in the Superdome during the Katrina aftermath. None of those deaths was related to violent crime.”

Interestingly, Compass was asked months afterward why he had depicted post-Katrina New Orleans as swept by mayhem and terror.

He offered this strange reply:

“I didn’t want people to think we were trying to cover anything up,” he said. “So I repeated things without being substantiated, and it caused a lot of problems.”

Compass was forced to resign within a few weeks of his appearance on Oprah. Nagin, though, was reelected in 2006 to a four-year term as mayor. He left office in 2010.

He’s out now with a self-published book, Katrina’s Secrets: Storms after the Storm (Volume I). In it, Nagin stokes the undocumented claims about violence inside the Superdome in the hurricane’s aftermath.

According to an essay written by Brendan McCarthy of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and posted at nola.com, Nagin claims in the book to have had “private conversations” with “several” women who said they were raped there.

McCarthy’s post quotes Nagin’s book as stating:

“The political and media spin later claimed that many of the rapes were basically the figment of our collective imagination. This ensured that anyone who was raped would not come forward to face unfair, invasive scrutiny while being forced to defend their credibility.”

McCarthy’s post also quotes Compass’ successor, Warren Riley, as having said in 2010:

“The stories that people had died in the Superdome, that people were being raped — there’s not one iota of evidence to show that anyone was killed or raped in the Dome.”

WJC

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Media myths, the ‘comfort food’ of journalism

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths on May 25, 2011 at 4:48 am

One of my favored characterizations of media-driven myths, those dubious tales about media power that masquerade as factual, is that they’re the “junk food of journalism.”

Not comforting at all

By that I mean they’re tasty and alluring, but not very nutritious, not very healthy.

The “junk food of journalism” is a turn of phrase suggested by an American University graduate student a few years ago. And, crediting him, I included that description in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out almost a year ago.

At a recent Roads Scholar (formerly ElderHostel) program at which I spoke about media myths, a participant offered a variation on “junk food of journalism.”

Media myths, she suggested, also are akin to “comfort food of journalism.”

The comfort food of journalism.

I liked the phrase. Liked it immediately.

Media myths, after all, do tend to offer comfort to journalists, the practitioners of a profession that’s largely unloved.

Tales such as those about the mythical “Cronkite Moment” or the heroic journalists who exposed Watergate make newsgathering seem vital, central, and essential. Those and other tales speak to the potential of journalism to do good, to make a difference.

The tales are indeed much like comfort food.

Seeking reassurance about the relevance of journalism helps explain the myth of superlative reporting that marred the coverage of the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in late summer 2005.

The hurricane brought vast flooding to New Orleans, where levees failed.

“In the face of the deepening disaster, federal, state, and city emergency relief efforts proved sluggish, erratic, and stymied, especially in New Orleans,” I write in Getting It Wrong, adding:

“Evidence of government incompetence at all levels was abundant, and became a powerful story. People were suffering in New Orleans, and journalists went after the story vigorously, posing lacerating questions of federal, state, and city authorities: Where was the aid? Why had it not arrived? What was to be done to help the evacuees?”

In the turmoil, traditional news media seemed vital and authoritative. They were “essential again,” as American Journalism Review declared in a cover story both flattering and comforting.

“Those first days were a time for intrepid TV cameramen to take us into the stench and the sweat, the anger and the not knowing, the fear of those who seemed abandoned by their own country,” American Journalism Review asserted. “Those first days were a time for newspapers to put aside jitters about their declining importance and worries about layoffs and cutbacks. The old papers instead reasserted the comfort and utility of news you could hold in your hand.”

It added:

“In this era of blogs, pundits and shouted arguments, the coming of Katrina reunited the people and the reporters. In a time of travail, parts of the media landscape that had seemed faded, yea, even discarded, now felt true.”

Woah: “reunited the people and the reporters”? Talk about comfort food for the press.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, such self-reverential praise was “more than a little misleading.” The post-Katrina comfort-food story was largely wrong.

The reporting about Katrina’s aftermath was “no high, heroic moment in American journalism,” I note, adding:

“The coverage was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong.”

In the days immediately after Katrina’s landfall, news reports described apocalyptic horror supposedly unleashed by the hurricane. Journalists reported snipers firing at medical personnel. They reported shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center. They told of bodies being stacked there like cordwood.

News reports spoke of roving gangs that preyed on tourists and terrorized the occupants of the Superdome. They said children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.

None of those reports, as it turned out, was verified or substantiated.

The exaggerated coverage not only delayed the arrival of aid to New Orleans; it impugned a battered city and defamed its residents, depicting them, inaccurately, as having shed all restraint in the face of a disaster.

WJC

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JHistory: ‘Getting It Wrong’ deserves to be ‘required reading’

In Bay of Pigs, Bra-burning, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Reviews, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 7, 2011 at 9:51 am

JHistory, the listserv devoted to issues in journalism history, posted yesterday a very insightful and favorable review of my latest book, Getting It Wrong, saying it “should be required reading for journalism students as well as journalists and editors.”

Getting It Wrong “reinforces the necessity of healthy skepticism; a commitment to fully understanding the implications of one’s research; and the importance of cultivating diverse, credible sources and viewpoints for probing, quality journalism,” the review says.

Getting It Wrong, which was published in summer 2010 by University of California Press, addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths — those dubious tales about and/or by the news media that masquerade as factual.

The reviewer for JHistory, Jeanette McVicker of SUNY-Fredonia, says Getting It Wrong is a “compelling book” that “generated a minor sensation in journalism circles all summer, with good reason.”

McVicker, whom I do not know, notes:

“In each chapter, Campbell delivers pithy, well-researched correctives for each sensational claim.

“No,” she writes, “Orson Welles’s ‘War of the Worlds‘ radio broadcast did not induce a national panic in October 1938. Yes, there was symbolic bra burning in the Freedom Trash Can at the 1968 protest of the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, but no mass stripping of undergarments by wild women’s liberationists. No, the Kennedy administration did not request the New York Times to spike or delay a report on the imminent Bay of Pigs invasion: ‘utter fancy,’ Campbell writes.”

McVicker adds:

“The deconstruction of these cherished media myths by Campbell’s archival, source-driven research is praiseworthy, and makes for fascinating reading.”

She further notes:

“In most of these examples, the devastating legacy of the mythmaking media machine continues far beyond attempts to backpedal and correct the erroneous reporting: sensational stories tend to remain in public consciousness for years and sometimes decades.”

Indeed.

Getting It Wrong, McVicker adds, “demonstrates with tremendous force how discrete instances of media reporting and mythmaking have built up a golden age fallacy of journalism’s self-importance, and his work goes a long way toward deflating such heroic myths and consensus-narratives at the heart of modern journalism history.”

Her principal challenge to Getting It Wrong lies in my view that stripping away and debunking prominent media myths “enhances a case for limited news media influence. Media power tends to be modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational.”

Too often, I write, “the ubiquitous presence of the news media is mistaken for power and influence. … The influence of the news media is typically trumped by other forces.”

It’s an accurate assessment, especially given that media myths — such as the notion that investigative reporting by the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal — often seek to “ascribe power, significance, and sometimes great courage to the news media and their practitioners.”

Puncturing media myths thus serves to deflate the notion of sweeping media power.

McVicker tends to disagree, writing that “it is surely not the case that the combined effects of such narratives are ‘modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational.'”

She notes as an example “the ongoing legacy of mainstream media’s failure to hold members of the Bush administration accountable during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, a devastating correlate to Campbell’s spot-on analysis of the distorted, erroneous reporting of what was happening in the streets of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.”

There is, though, a fair amount of evidence that the news media were neither gullible nor comatose in the run-up to the war in Iraq, that tough questions were raised of the Bush administration’s pre-war plans.

While the notion of a docile news media has hardened into conventional wisdom about the pre-war coverage, that view has been challenged, notably by David Gregory of NBC News, who has asserted:

“I think the questions were asked [in the run-up to the war].  I think we pushed. I think we prodded. I think we challenged the president. I think not only those of us the White House press corps did that, but others in the rest of the landscape of the media did that.

“If there wasn’t a debate in this country” about going to war in Iraq, Gregory has said, “then maybe the American people should think about, why not?  Where was Congress? Where was the House? Where was the Senate? Where was public opinion about the war?”

I find quite telling this observation, offered in 2007 by Reason magazine:

“The ‘we should have done more to head off this war’ arguments assumes too much, exaggerates the media’s power to influence, removes the onus from politicians and infantilizes news consumers. … many in the media did ask tough questions of the administration, but the public wasn’t paying much attention.”

That the news media were comatose in the run-up to the Iraq War may be yet another media-driven myth.

WJC

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Campbell’s

book should be required reading for journalism students as well as

journalists and editors, for it reinforces the necessity of healthy

skepticism; a commitment to fully understanding the implications of one’s

research; and the importance of cultivating diverse, credible sources and

viewpoints for probing, quality journalism. There is an even greater lesson

here, however, pertinent for all readers: consistent with the rise of

“modern” journalism from the late 1800s to the present, the institution of

journalism has bolstered itself with narratives celebrating its own

strategic importance to society, even when the narratives turn out to be

fictions.

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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Books and Banter club discusses ‘Getting It Wrong’

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 19, 2010 at 6:46 pm

I was honored that the Books and Banter club in Washington, D.C., selected Getting It Wrong for discussion at its October meeting.

Getting It Wrong is my latest book; it debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths–dubious or improbable stories about the news media that masquerade as factual.

Sixteen members of the club met last night at a restaurant in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Virginia–within a block or two of the underground parking garage where during the Watergate investigation Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward sometimes met his high-level federal source known as “Deep Throat.”

At the request of club member Paige Gold, who led the discussion, I dropped in for the closing half of the discussion about Getting It Wrong.

I told the club members that I didn’t consider Getting It Wrong as an exercise in media-bashing.

Rather, I said, I like to think of the book as aligned with a fundamental imperative in journalism–that of getting it right.

I had a great time fielding the club members’ very thoughtful, engaging, and intriguing questions.

Among those questions was whether media audiences bear any responsibility for the tenacity of media myths.

Not directly or significantly, I replied.

The myths addressed in Getting It Wrong are, in one way or another, all media-driven. Journalists and news organizations have been the primary culprits in pushing them. Their doing so is more than a little self-serving: After all, media myths serve to reinforce the notion that, for good or bad, the news media are central and decisive forces in American life.

So at one end of the scale, I said, “we have William Randolph Hearst, journalist-as-war-monger, who famously vowed to ‘furnish the war‘ with Spain” in the late 19th century.

At the other, I added, we have the heroic journalists of Watergate, Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein, whose investigative reporting brought down a corrupt presidency.

Myths such as those can be used to identify the media as malevolent forces or as indispensable guardians of truth and democratic values. And variety of that kind helps explain why media myths can be so tenacious.

I also was asked what should readers be sure to take away from the book.

In jest, I replied that I thought they should take away the recognition that Getting It Wrong is such a good book they should offer it as gifts to friends and family, especially at the year-end holidays.

Seriously, I added, the takeaway for readers may well be to treat media content with a healthy measure of skepticism, to realize that news reports often are tentative, incomplete, prone to error and revision.

This is especially the case in coverage of disasters, such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina a little more than five years ago.

Almost certainly, the early reports about a disaster will prove to be exaggerated in some fashion. The coverage of Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans offers a telling reminder, I said.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, Katrina’s aftermath represented “no high, heroic moment in American journalism.

“The coverage was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong. In the days following Katrina’s landfall, news reports described apocalyptic horror that the hurricane supposedly had unleashed.”

The flawed coverage–the erroneous reports of snipers firing at medical personnel and relief helicopters, of bodies being stacked like cordwood in the New Orleans convention center, of roving gangs raping and killing, of children with their throats slashed, of sharks plying the city’s flood waters–was not without consequences.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, the over-the-top reporting “had the very real and serious effects of delaying the arrival of aid to New Orleans, of diverting and distorting the deployment of resources and capabilities, of heightening the anxiety of [storm] evacuees at the Superdome and Convention Center, and of broadly stigmatizing a city and its people.”

WJC

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‘Getting It Wrong’ goes on ‘PJM Political’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths on October 10, 2010 at 10:24 am

I had a fine interview recently with Silicon Valley blogger Ed Driscoll for the Pajamas Media radio show, PJM Political.

The interview aired yesterday on Sirus-XM radio’s POTUS channel.

Topic: My new book, Getting It Wrong, which debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths, those dubious and improbable tales about the news media that masquerade as factual.

Driscoll, who conducts a thoughtful and well-prepared interview, led me through a discussion of several myths addressed in Getting It Wrong, including the Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

That was when, supposedly, the on-air analysis of CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite prompted President Lyndon Johnson to change his thinking about the Vietnam War and led him to decide against seeking reelection.

“That’s simply not true,” I pointed out. “Lyndon Johnson didn’t even see the [Cronkite] program when it aired in February 1968. And his decision not to seek reelection was driven by other forces and factors. Cronkite really was irrelevant to that equation, to that decision.

“But yet it lives on, as an example of media power, the media telling truth to power. And it’s a misleading interpretation, it’s a misreading of history.”

Driscoll said that the chapters of Getting It Wrong “have a sort of curious” set of bookends, in that they begin with a discussion of William Randolph Hearst’s famous vow to “furnish the war” with Spain and end with a look at the exaggerated, over-the-top coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath.

“Was this sort of book-ending intentional?” Driscoll asked.

It was an insightful question–and the first time an interviewer had asked about the book’s conceptual component.

I noted that the “original framework of the book had it organized more thematically, by ‘media and war’ and ‘media and government,'” and so on.

That framework was discarded, I said, “for a more chronological approach. So the bookends were driven more by chronology than anything else.”

We discussed how Orson Welles‘ cinematic masterpiece, Citizen Kane, helped cement the “furnish the war” myth in the public’s consciousness. Kane includes a scene that paraphrases Hearst’s purported vow.

The “furnish-the-war” anecdote about Hearst is dubious in many respects, I said, adding:

“Yet it lives on as an example of Hearst as the war-monger, as an example of the media–at its most malignant, in an extreme–can bring about a war that the country otherwise wouldn’t have fought.”

I mentioned how media-driven myths can be thought of as the “junk food of journalism,” which prompted Driscoll to ask:

What’s wrong with the American people being fed a little junk food? What’s wrong with being fed a few media myths?

There are several reasons, I replied.

Notably, “these myths tend to misrepresent the role of the news media in American society. They tend to grant the news media far more power and far more influence than they really do exert in American life.”

I added:

“Most people believe the media are powerful agents and powerful entities and often refer to some of the myths that I address, and debunk, in Getting It Wrong. They refer to them in support of this mistaken notion.”

In wrapping up the interview, Driscoll referred to Media Myth Alert as “a nifty blog.”

It was a generous plug that was much appreciated.

WJC

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