Nothing reduces the overall productivity of my life like watching people I know lose their mind on social media. In the aftermath of the “Covington Catholic kids vs. Native-American drummer” video, the “second” video(s) that purport to show “the real story,” the half-dozen tweeted videos showing high school boys acting badly in the area of the Lincoln Memorial and everyone’s “No, YOU’RE the one who doesn’t get it” posts, it’s a miracle I had time to bash my head repeatedly into my desk and pray for the sweet release of death.
Rest assured, though, that concussion was worth it…
With the hope of salvaging something of value out of that lost time (and head wound), please consider this follow up to yesterday’s post on this topic that might help you as student journalists:
“Pretty Sure” isn’t what we’re aiming for
One of the longest and most difficult arguments I had was with a journalist for whom I have a great amount of respect. She posted an 8-second video found via Twitter that had a young man (I’m guessing teens) say, “It’s not rape if you enjoy it.” The statement is appalling and the behavior inexcusable. Here is the capture of the Tweet:
I have no problem calling the kid out. I have no problem with this video being used to exemplify toxic masculinity. I have no problem if you want to rip on the kid for being a Bengals fan either. However, when pressed about how she knew this kid was part of the group from Covington Catholic High School, here is her response:
So in other words, “What I just stated as a fact doesn’t really have to be a fact if it represents the broader truth I want to call attention to.” My friend noted that this isn’t really a problem:
I also saw in more than one video that those students were wearing MAGA hats mocking that Native man. They may or may not be the same boys who were harassing women, but it fits as a pattern of behavior in the same area on the same day with the same type of attire. Sometimes we can look outside and say it’s raining without having the National Weather Service confirm it.
My concern, however, is that the original post explicitly stated these are COVINGTON STUDENTS. Whether they are or not doesn’t make the “rape” kid’s words any more or less offensive, but if you state something as a fact, it damned well needs to be one. That’s doubly true if you’re a journalist and/or if legal action could come into play.
I doubt the rain would sue for defamation if you called it “drizzle” or the National Weather Service would sue if you didn’t get verify that this wasn’t “mixed precipitation.” However, I could easily see a kid’s parents or a school file suit if you’re wrong on this one.
The point is: If you publish content that states something is a fact, you have to be sure it is a fact. I’m trying to imagine if I had come back to the newsroom at the State Journal and told our managing editor that I was “pretty sure” about something I put into a story that’s now been called into question. Or that “I don’t know if this is true, but I don’t need it to be” for the larger truth I’m trying to tell. I imagine Cliff’s reaction would have been like this, only slightly less nuanced:
If you’re not sure, you haven’t finished the job. Either become sure or don’t publish it as a fact.
Become a “non-denominational skeptic”
It’s easy to call BS on things you don’t like or when information comes from a source you tend to distrust. It’s hard to accept facts when they run contrary to what you want to believe. This is the unfortunate byproduct of living in a society in which people now feel entitled to not only their own opinions and own sources of information but also their own reality. This makes doing objective, fair and factually accurate journalism difficult and exceedingly frustrating.
I’ve interviewed people with whom I share little in common and in some cases for whom I held nothing but contempt. There was a firefighter who handed out anti-gay literature while on the job. There was the leader of a Wisconsin branch of the KKK. There was the head of an organization that pressed back against any attempt to have anything religious near anything secular.
I also interviewed people with whom I empathized, sympathized and just flat-out liked. There was the mother whose 17-year-old daughter died when her car crashed into a tree. There was the owner of a jewelry store who gave away a diamond ring to a less-fortunate woman near Christmas. There was the fire chief who was trying to fire the guy who passed out the anti-gay literature.
That said, whether I liked them or disliked them didn’t matter. My job was to dig and poke and make sure what I put out in the public sphere under my byline was factually accurate. Just because something fit what I perceived to be the truth didn’t mean I should treat it with kid gloves. Also, just because I didn’t like someone’s position on something, it didn’t follow that they were lying about everything.
If you fall into the “trust the nice guy/gal” trap, you can end up like this scene from “Shattered Glass:”
A good way to keep yourself from letting your personal feelings shade your approach to journalism is to become a non-denominational skeptic. (I don’t mean this in the religious fashion, but more in terms of deciding not to pick sides.) Check out EVERYTHING with the same level of vigor. Treat EVERY statement as though it must pass rigorous fact-checking before it is published, regardless of how much you believe it to be the case.
If you treat content provided to you by your best friend and your worst enemy with the same level of skepticism, you’ll make your work much stronger and you’ll worry a lot less about the bottom falling out on you at any point.
Pushing for accuracy is not excusing behavior
“How can you be excusing this behavior?” someone asked me.
The person had taken issue with the fact that I wasn’t ready to fully accept that the kid making the “rape” comment was from Covington Catholic. I also wasn’t going to accept the statement that a group of teenage boys offensively cat-calling a woman were from their either because I didn’t see proof of either statement.
This person’s point was that, in calling for something beyond “the person posting the video said so,” I was essentially saying, “Hey, that’s fine.”
My point was that I needed to know HOW this person came to the conclusion that THIS PARTICULAR group of idiotic twerps was from THAT SPECIFIC school. In the “drumming” video, you could see school apparel on multiple people. In the “rape” video, I didn’t see anything tying the school to the kid. I also saw a mix of teen boys and girls, which struck me as odd, as Covington is an all-boys school. There was also an image in the original video that had a kid wearing gear from another school, so it wasn’t clear they were ALL from Covington.
And as far as the “cat-calling” video, the blur of guys and the 8-second walk-by gave me no sense that this was anything more than the videographer’s assumption these kids were from that school after the “drumming” video went viral.
In no way was I excusing lousy behavior. In no way was I saying that if these kids weren’t from Covington, it was totally cool that they acted like jerks. What I was saying was facts matter, so let’s get them right. If you can show me how you came to that conclusion and I can see your point, fine. I’m with you. If not, I’m not going to extrapolate just because we know the other kids came from that school.
Asking for accuracy doesn’t make you a bad person and isn’t condoning anything.
When you deal with controversial topics or report on sensitive issues, you might have to ask questions that are impolite or that could cause people to chafe a bit. This used to happen to me when I had to report on people who had died and family members were trying to craft a narrative. Asking, “I’m sorry, but I can’t find any proof that Bill won the Congressional Medal of Honor. How are you so sure he did?” when building an obituary can make you feel awkward. I had to ask the mother of that dead 17-year-old if she was aware her daughter was legally drunk while driving, because she had made a statement contrary to that. It sucked.
That said, I had to get stuff right.
If I published a story and erroneously called a man convicted of rape “a convicted murderer,” I would need to run a correction because it’s not true. That doesn’t make me an apologist for the guy. It doesn’t tell the readers, “Hey, this guy’s pretty OK.”
What it says is that I want to get the facts right.