Three things student journalists can learn from the coverage of the Covington Catholic Kids vs. Native-American drummer situation

The video of a white, male high school student wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, facing off against a 64-year-old Native-American man, who was drumming and singing went way beyond “viral” this weekend. In case you missed it, even though I have no idea how that would be possible, here is some background from the early stories on this situation.

From Indian Country Today’s website came one of the first looks at this:

Yesterday, following the first annual Indigenous People’s March in Washington D.C., YouTube user KC NOLAND released a video showing a large group of youths wearing “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) hats and other Trump paraphernalia taunting a Native American elder playing a ceremonial drum and singing a song.

According to reports, the youths were in attendance for the March for Life, a pro-life action occurring at the same time as the Indigenous People’s March. According to organizers of the Indigenous Peoples March present for the exchange, Phillips was aggressively surrounded by more than 30 counter-protesters.

Many, like the Washington Post, relied on an Associated Press wire report, to outline the conflict:

The Indigenous Peoples March in Washington on Friday coincided with the March for Life, which drew thousands of anti-abortion protesters, including a group from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills.

Videos circulating online show a youth staring at and standing extremely close to Nathan Phillips, a 64-year-old Native American man singing and playing a drum.

Other students, some wearing Covington clothing and many wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and sweatshirts, surrounded them, chanting, laughing and jeering.

The New York Times followed with a narrative approach to the story, using movement and tension to lead into the main topic:

They were Catholic high school students who came to Washington on a field trip to rally at the March for Life.

He was a Native American veteran of the Vietnam War who was there to raise awareness at the Indigenous Peoples March.

They intersected on Friday in an unsettling encounter outside the Lincoln Memorial — a throng of cheering and jeering high school boys, predominantly white and wearing “Make America Great Again” gear, surrounding a Native American elder.

The episode was being investigated and the students could face punishment, up to and including expulsion, their school said in a statement on Saturday afternoon.

In video footage that was shared widely on social media, one boy, wearing the red hat that has become a signature of President Trump, stood directly in front of the elder, who stared impassively ahead while playing a ceremonial drum.

What also followed was the news media starting to reconfigure its position a day later, as you can see in this add to the top of the NYT’s original news story:

Interviews and additional video footage have offered a fuller picture of what happened in this encounter, including the context that the Native American man approached the students amid broader tensions outside the Lincoln Memorial. Read the latest article here.

The Times then followed with this story:

A fuller and more complicated picture emerged on Sunday of the videotaped encounter between a Native American man and a throng of high school boys wearing “Make America Great Again” gear outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Interviews and additional video footage suggest that an explosive convergence of race, religion and ideological beliefs — against a national backdrop of political tension — set the stage for the viral moment. Early video excerpts from the encounter obscured the larger context, inflaming outrage.

Other media outlets also did something between a backpedal and a retraction, now seeking “nuance” or “a broader understanding” for the incident.  Nick Sandmann, the student who is now infamous for his face-to-face encounter with Omaha elder Nathan Phillips, issued a lengthy statement to media outlets on Sunday, in which he states that he was not mocking or insulting Phillips. A longer video from another vantage point includes the interactions between the students and a third group, which had made hate-filled and racist comments toward the students.

As news consumers, the degree to which you believe any particular position taken by any of the groups or individuals in terms of who did what to whom is entirely up to you. That said, as student journalists, there are three learning moments you can take from the media coverage of this event:


Fast is good, accurate is better

The speed at which this whole story hit mainstream media makes the adrenaline shot in “Pulp Fiction” look measured and nuanced by comparison. The NY Times, the Washington Post and other venerable outlets seemed to run from pillar to post, looking for reaction from everyone who ever touched a keyboard or attended Catholic school.

As that happened, everyone tangentially attached to this, from the school’s administration to the mayor of a city that doesn’t actually contain that school, issued statements condemning the unholy hell out of the students as quickly as possible. People tried to identify as many of the students as possible online. Each outlet appeared to try to add something “extra” to the story, relying on tidbits of varying value.

The problem? A lot of stuff wasn’t accurate. For example, a publication quickly identified the wrong student as being involved in the face-to-face moment, only to have the Lexington Herald Leader issue a correction for the internet at large. In addition, an internet troll claiming to be Nick Sandmann’s mother made disparaging comments via the @gauchoguacamole Twitter account about Native Americans and smallpox, which led to more confusion. Twitter also suspended an account that purported to be from a California teacher, but was not, that made “deliberate attempts to manipulate the public conversation on Twitter by using misleading account information.”

Who was “legit” and who was trying to just mess with people? Nobody seemed to know, but a lot of it managed to leak into varying media outlets on the web. Even more, the Times and others tried to excuse themselves from their roles in this disaster-bacle by stating “a fuller and more complicated picture emerged.” (Saying something “emerged” is a nice way of absolving yourself of something and roughly translates to, “Hey, we didn’t find everything necessary to understand the whole story, but now that everything is a toxic waste dump out there, let’s slow up and take another shot at this.”)

Even the March for Life, the organization the students arrived to support, had to issue a statement backing off of its original condemnation, noting, “We will refrain from commenting further until the truth is understood.”

That’s a pretty good policy for people in general and journalists in particular: Don’t write something if you don’t know it to be accurate. It’s easy to figure, “Hell, the information is out there so it MUST be true enough to use for my piece,” but that’s not how journalism works. Your job is to find out what actually happened, write as much of it as you possibly can in a coherent and accurate way and, when you’re sure your work is ready to undergo the crucible of public scrutiny, publish it.

If you can do all that quickly, fine. If not, slow down and get it right first.


The duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish

One of the big debates online was if the students in the video, particularly Sandmann, should be identified. Some media outlets chose not to do this, while others seemed to treat this as sport:


(It’s “Allegedly Racist Pokemon!” Gotta catch ’em all!)

One particularly long Twitter thread outlines the way in which the author got information on Sandmann and then chose not to “out” him by name. The rambling (and somewhat sanctimonious) nature of this thread aside, the author does bring to bear a bigger issue: Just because you get the information, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you should publish it.

Each time you write a story, you are actively engaging with the material in a way that leads to a particular “frame.” You provide your readers with certain information and discard other information that may not see the light of day anywhere else. In many cases, these choices are easy or run very little risk.

However, in cases like these, you can find yourself battling different instincts. You want to add something to a story, but you don’t want to hurt someone. You want to shine a light on something important, but you aren’t sure about the quality of a source. You feel pressure to “get the story out” but you don’t know if you have adequately considered all the ramifications of your actions.

Those thoughts, and others like them, are all completely normal and do not make you a bad journalist. In fact, they make you a pretty good human being.

This doesn’t mean you should be a wimp when it comes to your reporting, nor does it mean you should go all Vic Mackey from “The Shield” on people. Report to the best of your ability and ask whatever questions you need to get as much information as you can. However, before you put anything before the public, review what you have and decide how important you think it is. Then, make choices about what gets published and what doesn’t. Just because you got the information doesn’t mean you should publish it. That’s what we call editorial discretion.


Objectivity is still an admirable goal

This is a truly odd time to be a journalist. The term “fake news” gets tossed around a lot. The public seems to have less trust in us than at any other point in recent history. Media outlets (and I use that term loosely) do not always abide by the same ethical and professional norms you learned in your Intro to Mass Media class. “Everyone” is an expert and yet “nobody” knows what they’re talking about. The idea of “gathering information from all sides” seems quaint to some and almost villainous to others. To say, “I’m not sure yet” or “We need to hear from everyone” will sound to some people like you’re an apologist, a coward or a hypocrite.

Don’t worry about all that. Stick to the basic tenets of journalism and you’ll be fine.

Objectivity is like perfection: You will never truly attain it. However, as Vince Lombardi once noted, it’s important to relentlessly pursue it, because you’ll get something pretty good along the way: Excellence. It can seem pointless to hold back a name if “everyone” is publishing it or to “balance” a story when the truth seems so clear.

That said, journalists are paid to be fact-finders and skeptics. The job is to be nosy, find the facts and give them to your readers and viewers. They may not like it and they may not entirely believe you because “other people” have said more or have woven in stronger bits of unsubstantiated content. However, when you turn out to be right more often than not and the other sources implode, thanks to their own hubris, people will come around.

When is a smile a smirk? When is a cheer a jeer? When is contact a confrontation? I have no idea, but what I did know was that some people extrapolated based on their own preconceptions and ended up regretting it later.

The goal here is not to pick sides and fight for only the people on it. You need to figure out what happened and report the content. In a standard news article, you should stick to the facts, gather as many of them as you can and present them to your readers in the most direct way possible. Then, THEY can decide for THEMSELVES if the kid was smirking or trying to defuse a situation or if the noises the students were making were in the furtherance of school pride or blatant racism.

You’re not Superman. You’re Clark Kent.

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