Journalism means never having to say you’re sorry

Journalism means never having to say you’re sorry September 17, 2012

In comments to my post this weekend suggesting a few angles for coverage of Muslim protests against America and one of its resident’s films, reader Sari asked:

Why has there been virtually no journalistic comment on the antisemitic aspect?

If you’ve been following this story, you know that when news broke about the 14-minute YouTube clip of an anti-Muslim film, reporters wrote that the guy behind the film said he was Israeli-American and that the movie had been funded by “100 Jewish donors.” I earlier wrote that it would have been wise to couch the filmmaker’s claims with a hint more skepticism. But what has the media response been to its own advancement of information that turned out to be false?

Devin Harner, an English professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/City University of New York, analyzed some of the missteps for PBS MediaShift. He highlighted an AP  story about “Sam Bacile,” was later outed as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a 55-year-old Egyptian Coptic Christian and convicted felon.

The AP clearly dropped the ball on the original story, and perpetuated a latently anti-Semitic narrative that resulted in headlines such as “Israel Distances Itself from Prophet Muhammad Film” (as if the burden of distancing should be on them). They somehow figured out that Sam Bacile didn’t exist, and that his address and phone number were remarkably similar to that of Nakoula.

However, before this happened, there was some collective uncertainty surrounding Bacile, and, before I went to bed Wednesday night, I scoured Google News one more time, and was treated to retread stories such as “What We Know About ‘Sam Bacile‘” on NPR’s news blog, which admits, rather tediously, in its second paragraph, that “the bottom line is that we know very little about ‘Sam Bacile.'” The most compelling thing about the story, up to this point, is its use of scare quotes to establish symbolic distance, and to tell us that they’re onto him, even if they’re not.

Harner has some interesting thoughts on how the use of the first person plural displaces some of the blame from the journalists who got caught advancing a false narrative. Anyway, he highlights how some journalists’ b.s. detectors went off in response to the early reports (“Savvy bloggers detected B.S. in Bacile’s story. It’s the sort of work that the reporters should have done before they ran the original story.”). He adds:

The “credible” mainstream media’s complicity in perpetuating the falsehood is tragic as well. But perhaps more tragic is their collective inability to admit that they were played, and the fact that they posted “updated” stories, and “extras” shedding new light on Bacile, and in the process buried the original, erroneous stories under a blizzard of faux-mystery and spin.

Now, I wonder what you think about this. Harner points out how many media outlets failed to update Associated Press story after a correction was sent out. That is a problem, a very real problem in this internet age, but we should be careful about pointing blame to the right folks. On the one hand, yes, media outlets should be much more careful about being right with their breaking news, but also media outlets that take news wires and feeds should be careful about updating and running corrections.

In general, though, I agree with the general complaint about inability to admit error. I’ve been ruminating on this issue for months. We all make mistakes. Some of them are ones we deeply regret. I’m no exception. I was just this weekend reminded about a piece I wrote five years ago for a major daily that I wished I’d done differently. But I do wonder whether journalists are particularly bad at being reflective or taking criticism. It just seems that the posture we feel most comfortable with is “defensive.” Part of that is because everyone’s a critic. Part of that is because so much of what critics say is just not meaningful. You wouldn’t believe the trollish behavior that comes along with the first time your byline is put to paper. We’re trained to be skeptical and we’re even skeptical of our critics.

Still, I think the profession would be very well served by more reflection and humility. And when we make mistakes, I would hope that readers and viewers would be willing to hear a heartfelt apology and pledge to do better. But I’m curious what you all think. Few people will defend the early mistakes we saw on this story as it relates to the advancement of some anti-semitic narratives. But what are the larger lessons?

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