2014 Journalism uh-ohs: News blunders that can teach us lessons

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Journalism can be a dirty, even scary, business. In the pursuit of news this past year, reporters have trudged waist-deep through flood waters, been teargassed alongside protestors, gotten arrested, threatened and exposed to frighteningly efficient diseases.

Despite the hardship, many produced trenchant, brilliant accounts of the world around us. They’ve brought to us the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls, the downing of airplanes, and cast a light on racial divisions that continue to rankle American society. Journalists had much to congratulate themselves on in 2014.

Yet, as in any news year, plenty of media blunders were made. While critics and comedians might be damning in their indictments of the Fourth Estate, a grizzled professor and veteran journalist once told me there’s evidence of success in those failures. After all, a little honest introspection never did any self-respecting profession any harm.

And so, here are Kip’s picks for the top journalism bungles of the year:

Ebola Crisis

The virus that ransacked West Africa — and became the year’s most shared topic on social media — began as a non-story in mainstream media. Even after 1,000 people died in Liberia and Sierra Leone early last summer, aid groups couldn’t seem to scream loud enough to get journalists’ attention.

Then the virus landed on U.S. soil, at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. Media reports detonated online and on the airwaves. While certainly not all coverage was histrionic, the tone and sudden urgency of some reports — and the apocalyptic screen crawls — fed public fear. Joe Scarborough insinuated on Meet the Press that the government wasn’t believable when it cautioned Americans not to panic. Fox News’ Elisabeth Hasselbeck insisted the U.S. shut down flights and secure its borders. Other reports said that the virus was soon to “go airborne.”

Jon Stewart quipped of the media: “They’ve drunk so much doomsday juice that they’re even projecting panic onto people who are not panicking.”

Worse yet, a Rutgers-Eagleton poll  showed that New Jersey residents who most closely followed the media’s coverage of the Ebola crisis were also the most misinformed.

Social media flub

magnayThe Israeli-Gaza conflict factored high in social media attention grabbers, with 84K peak shares about the conflict in August. Perhaps some of that interest was piqued after a CNN reporter made headlines in July for her foot-in-mouth tweet.

The correspondent  was with a crowd on a hill overlooking the beginning of the ground invasion into the Gaza Strip. As missiles whizzed toward their targets, the crowd cheered. After her report, Magnay tweeted that the crowd threatened “‘to ‘destroy our car if I say a word wrong.’ Scum.”

She deleted the tweet, but not before hundreds shared it. Though some lauded her honesty, her objectivity in reporting the conflict had come into question. Emotionally charged subjects frequently turn their frustrations on the media; rapid-fire retaliation on social media is always a bad idea. Magnay’s four-letter insult cost her a choice reporting position. She was reassigned to Moscow the next day.

Check three ways

Campus rape is an exigent matter that has received scant attention from the media and almost criminal neglect by law enforcement. That’s why one of the biggest bungles of journalism in 2014 was also one of the saddest.

Rolling Stone’s Nov. 19 article about University of Virginia rape victim “Jackie” had all the right elements: an alcohol-tinged party, a college fraternity, an ingenuous college junior. Her harrowing account of being raped by seven men and left spattered in her own blood sparked candlelight vigils and outrage, but not just from victims advocates. The fraternity adamantly denied the allegation and a Washington Post story consequently illumined glaring holes in the article. Soon after the story fell apart.

Rolling Stone issued a statement: “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”

The reporter, who says she was honoring the victim’s privacy, failed to contact the men accused, “Jackie’s” friends or any other witness. She failed to meet the “three-way check,” a standard set forth in any Journalism 101 course. Mostly, she failed a voiceless and growing number of rape victims on university campuses who deserve so much better.

Ferguson Unrest

News coverage of racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, figured prominently in panel discussions at media conferences last year, including at ONA and NABJ. Some, especially that of St. Louis media outlets, featured exemplary work: video, online and social media accounts that captured the visceral frustration of a disenfranchised community.

But as coverage played out (ad infinitum on cable and online) it became clear that some media were compromising standards. As national media descended upon St. Louis County — “like a shark . . . smelling blood” one Tweeter commented — the wall-to-wall coverage started to reek a little.

CNN reporter Don Lemon offered on air to help the parents of Michael Brown, the unarmed teen who was shot by the police officer. MSNBC national reporter Trymaine Lee, stood among protestors and offered commentary as another reporter interviewed him, blurring the lines between opinion and reporting. Politico charged that reporters arrested while covering the story “have crossed the line and become part of the story.”

Protestors themselves accused the media of bias (chanting F— CNN during the network’s live coverage at a New York protest) and saying they felt they were being portrayed as “mobs of people terrorizing”.

Cable commentators had a field day trading barbs about media’s racially tinged coverage. In response to Fox’s Howie Kurtz’s comment that if the cameras went away, so would the rioting, Stephen Colbert asserted: “It’s true. The presence of a camera clearly makes people behave recklessly because I don’t believe for a minute that Howie Kurtz would have floated the idea that journalists are to blame for the Ferguson violence if a camera wasn’t pointed at him.”

Still, nearly 75 percent of respondents to a St. Louis County poll by Remington Research said that the media contributed to making the situation in Ferguson worse.

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