On January 18, a short video showing a smiling white teenager in a Make America Great Again hat standing face-to-face with an elderly Native American banging a drum, while a number of other white teenagers stood behind them, was widely shared on social media and reported on by media outlets. The event, known as the Covington Catholic incident for the high school these teens attended, has added fuel to the long-running national debate about the integrity of our news media.
Although they had barely more than a short clip and a headline, media outlets reported hastily on the incident. This thin reporting invited members of the public to rush to judgment, filling in the background information based on what they saw: a Native American man and a MAGA hat. Celebrities took to Twitter, posting pictures of a wood chipper with blood spraying out of it and demanding to know the names of the students involved. Elected officials and Catholic clergy alike condemned the snippet they had seen. Kathy Griffin took the top prize for absurd reaction, tweeting an unrelated picture of the Covington basketball team bench celebrating a three-pointer while claiming that the image showed a Nazi sign.
In the next three days, follow-up coverage gave a more nuanced depiction of the story, but the work put into those reports should have gone into the initial coverage. Media outlets revised their stories to include important details: a group of Black Hebrew Israelites agitated the situation, it was the Native American who approached the Covington students, and the students did not harass him as previously reported. The outlets also noted that new information had provided a different angle to the story. Unfortunately, these revisions came too late to stop the immediate torrent of condemnation and online harassment the students in question faced.
The media response to the incident has inflamed the conversation about the media during the Trump presidency. While the social media have almost always suffered from too much viral content, this incident suggests that traditional media outlets may fall victim to the same trend. Twenty-four-hour news cycles have created an environment in which outlets rush to share a clip and a headline before they can provide context for their reporting. When President Trump takes seemingly every opportunity to bash what he calls “the fake news media,” this kind of laziness among the news providers in question is irresponsible and dangerous. It also raises two key issues.
First, each political news story has one or more, perhaps multiple, people at its center. While condemning them may be justified once thorough reporting has been carried out, exposing them to immediate, brutal, public criticism based on incomplete information is unfairly damaging to people’s character. Regardless of one’s own opinion on the Covington Catholic incident, wishing physical harm on a teenager, or anyone for that matter, is disgusting, especially when based on incomplete information.
Second, rushed and irresponsible reporting provides another opening for an attack on the media, which are crucial to maintaining our functioning democracy. Although the early stories on this incident may not have been “fake news,” they certainly represented a collective failure of many mainstream news providers to report accurately, fairly, and completely. While news outlets rightly condemn damaging rhetoric from the Trump Administration that attacks the quality of their reporting, they must bolster their own cause by tightening up their standards and providing critics with fewer examples of poor reporting.
The modern rapid news cycle will not stop, but traditional outlets, especially, must maintain their standards in this environment. They can do that by using more neutral language, especially about people at the center of a story, and by delaying reporting until at least basic background information has been collected. Above all, the media should recognize that the best response to a dangerous media environment is not to play into the preconceived notions of one’s audience based on scant information, but to tighten standards and commit to reporting the news more accurately, fairly, and completely than ever before.