Journalists should skip false narratives
December 28, 2014
Although I've been a journalist for more than 50 years, I don't understand some of what passes for journalism in the 21st century. Perhaps I'm just an old fuddy-duddy, but I think some of today's "journalism" doesn't pass the smell test, and it's certainly not what I learned in Journalism 101 at the University of Washington in Seattle many years ago.
The most recent example of what I'm writing about is media coverage of the so-called Senate Torture Report in which Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) put American lives at risk by publishing a one-sided report on alleged CIA torture of terrorism suspects in the Middle East. It was an all-Democrat exercise and investigators failed to interview any of the CIA officers accused of torture. Of course the mainstream media ran with the story, convicting President Bush and the interrogators of torture before they had an opportunity to tell their side of the story. Shame on the mainstream media.
Another current example of single-source investigative reporting is a story published by Rolling Stone magazine revealing a purported 2012 gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house. According to USA Today, "The 9,000- word story published Nov. 19 recounted a horrific attack on a U.Va freshman it called 'Jackie' at a party … in an upstairs room of the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity house."
So far, so good, but Jackie's story soon started coming apart at the seams and Rolling Stone "journalist" Sandra Erdely was in hot water. Erdely told her editors she had honored Jackie's request not to contact any of the alleged rapists, and her lax editor accepted that request. In other words, she and her editor published only one side of the story, a no-no in any journalism school in the country. In my opinion, the editor should have been fired on the spot.
I learned the importance of proper sourcing, or corroboration, in journalism school. When I worked for the Associated Press here in Carson, we had an ironclad rule to balance accusations by interviewing the accused, and when I supervised Spanish-language broadcasting for the Voice of America in Washington, D.C., we two-sourced all of our news stories. We never ran single-source stories.
False narratives seem to abound these days. The U.Va story is quite similar to the Duke University lacrosse team case of several years ago, in which an over-zealous prosecutor charged several white lacrosse players of raping an African-American stripper. Most mainstream media jumped to the conclusion this was a horrific white-on-black sexual assault and called for the boys to spend the rest of their lives in prison. As it turned out, however, the stripper had made up her story and the prosecutor, who was later disbarred, was forced to drop the charges. Oops!
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And speaking of white-on-black crime, which seems to be a popular narrative — racist white police officers shoot unarmed black people — let's consider the dissimilar cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City. The only similarity in these cases is both African-American men died in confrontations with white police officers. Eighteen-year-old Brown was shot to death after allegedly robbing a convenience store and allegedly punching a police officer in the face, while Garner died after being taken down by Staten Island police officers. No indictments were issued but outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder promised federal investigations to determine if the victims' civil rights were violated.
Responsible journalists should withhold judgment until all of the facts of these cases are known. Please skip the false narratives and report the news. Happy New Year!
Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a veteran journalist.