HOLEY: Sensationalist media delegitimizes reporting


Opinions Column: The Breaking Point

On the weekend of Jan. 19, social media was in a frenzy as footage showed a group of white, Catholic students wearing “Make America Great Again” hats surrounding a group of Native American demonstrators. Immediately, most mainstream media outlets, a handful of celebrities and other respected figures collectively bashed the teenagers. Fury on social media gathered as people cited the incident as an example of the deep racism that exists in the United States. 

That was until nearly two hours of additional footage emerged, giving additional context for the situation. Suddenly, people saw the group of Black Israelites, which had been present throughout the ordeal, yelling racial slurs and other insults at the students. People started pointing out that the Native American demonstrator Nathan Phillips went up to the students instead of having the students gather around him. Some claimed that some of the Native American protestors had been using racist slurs, while others claimed that the teenagers were still making racist gestures toward the activists. Eventually, people from the actual event started offering their own testimonies of how everything happened.

Over time, different mainstream media outlets began to change its own perspectives on the story. News sources began to retract its statements, and some even offered apologies. A reporter from The Atlantic released an article subtitled “Next time there’s a viral story, I’ll wait for more facts to emerge.” 

Yet, the damage had already been done, and the chaos had already spread across social media. The teenagers had already faced an onslaught of death threats and threats of possible expulsion. Random people appeared in Park Hills, Kentucky in order to protest, and Covington Catholic High School had to be shut down due to threats. Even President Donald J. Trump weighed in on the situation and said that the media mistreated the Covington students. No doubt, the bundle of Native American protestors had also received their fair share of death threats from angered people on the internet. This is despite the fact that Nathan Phillips and Nick Sandmann, the two main faces from the two sides of the incident, seem to hold no ill will toward each other.

The real tragedy of this whole experience is probably just the further degradation of the trust people have in the media as a whole. All this incident will do is further validate the concerns of people who believe that the mainstream media exists to spread political propaganda. People will further isolate themselves from different perspectives they see as “manipulative” and then turn to other sources that produce a narrative counter to what they see as mainstream, even if that narrative is false.

It is important to note that traditionally, mainstream media outlets actually offer good coverage of events — though we cannot act as if they are always going to give us the perfect, objective coverage of every situation. They will not. That is why looking at all of the information available to you, and formulating your own perspective based on definitive facts (not speculation) is important.

Nevertheless, I do believe that the news media is undermining its own legitimacy to a certain extent. Outlets are too quick to declare the definitive truth of any situation without admitting that sometimes stories may have additional information yet to be revealed. Many news outlets offer perspectives that are opinionated, yet they act as if it is part of the otherwise objective coverage of the events. News stories are sensationalized because the media feels compelled to attract the biggest audience to their platform, and they refuse to admit that the constant drive for being on top of “viral stories” ends up hurting the quality of news coverage. 

Both news media and we as individuals need to address some rather large issues concerning expectations of media coverage. We cannot have a fundamental narrative of objective truth existing within a 24-hour news cycle with dozens of different stations competing with each other in order to grab viewers’ attention. As it stands now, partisanship grabs attention. Appealing to political ideologies grabs attention. Having a strong opinion and fighting against some sort of “side” grabs attention. Turning every small incident into a huge battle as part of a larger culture war grabs attention. Then, throughout all of this, we allow ourselves to be caught up in our raw, worst natures — we subtly seem to start supporting some sort of agenda. 

Michael Holey is a School of Arts and Sciences junior interested  in political science. His column, "The Breaking Point," runs on alternate Mondays.

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