All it takes is a picture and a story that can enrage a large portion of our society and you have the ability to create a national controversy.
Who cares whether the story is true or the image represents reality. In today’s age, the ability to draw Internet hits and the opportunity to further your political agenda trumps any responsibility to the truth.
Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, decided to sit out the National Anthem during the NFL’s preseason. He believed by taking a knee during the Anthem he might start a conversation about police brutality toward unarmed black men. Instead, the conversation became about whether or not Kaepernick should take a knee.
Athletes across the country from the NFL to women’s soccer to NCAA football followed Kaepernick’s example. On Sept. 24, eight athletes from Millikin University, a Division III school in Decatur, Ill., took a knee during a road game. Some controversy followed; enough so that Millikin football coach Dan Gritti talked with his team to decide how to handle any future problems. The team, hoping to avoid controversy, decided to do what it had done earlier in the season at home games and what many other college football teams do – stay in the locker room during the National Anthem and come out as a team afterward.
The University released a statement that alerted the media that Millikin’s football team was staying in the locker room. The statement was picked up and reported on.
On Oct. 15, sophomore Connor Brewer snuck out of the locker room and stood during the National Anthem. Why he left the locker room we don’t know. It could have been because his parents told him he should. It could have been pressure from an old high school coach. He could have had personal reasons for taking the field on his own. For whatever reason, he left his teammates and took the field. A friend snapped a picture and posted it online, saying the rest of the team cowered inside.
The photo became a national story and was picked up by conservative news sites and in published headlines such as “One Player Stands to Honor His Country.” A Fox News part-timer, (story) made assumptions that weren’t true.
Todd Starnes wrote that:
“Connor Brewer is fiercely loyal to his college football team. But he is also fiercely loyal to the United States of America. So when the Millikin University football team decided to protest the national anthem by remaining inside the locker room – instead of on the sidelines – Connor was faced with a decision.
The Millikin football team never voted to protest the Anthem, the team voted to stay in the locker room. Starnes called the members of the football teams cowards and used dog whistle language throughout his piece, calling the players’ decision to stay in their locker room a “safe space,” accusing the entire team of being unpatriotic.
The photo appeared to validate what Starnes wrote and reaction was swift. Athletes from Millikin were swamped with attacks, from both friends and people they’d never met. They received death threats, they were called cowards, they were attacked on social media. The coaches received racist letters, threats and the usual array of nastiness that can be found on the Internet when certain factions have been upset.
Millikin’s football team was caught in a “media narrative.” The story grew. The Connor Brewer story spread to Sports Illustrated, CNN, Time, the Washington Times and other outlets. Brewer received praise throughout the country. People called the University asking to give Brewer scholarships, a Go Fund Me page was started in his name, and he was honored as a great American hero.
But by midweek, students from Millikin started reporting what really happened. Two stories (This and this) were written by Millikin students, trying to put the record straight. But that’s not how a media controversy works. The narrative was set. It was one kid standing for the Anthem while the others cowered in their locker room.
In reality, it was poor journalism and worse journalism ethics. The writers knew there had to be more to the story than what they were given. Starnes and his ilk read the statement by the president of the university and chose to misinterpret it. They took the powerful story, one that would ignite controversy, upset the conservative base and draw readers to the story. The story that was agreed to as what happened was a great story. A widespread protest of the National Anthem by a group of privileged Division III players is a great story. One young man standing alone to show his patriotism is a great story.
But it wasn’t true. It’s harmful. It doesn’t do anything but ignite the anger of those who choose to believe that kind of story.
Years ago, that story wouldn’t have been run. Someone would have contacted the coach and got the real story. Someone would have taken the time to find the real story behind the picture.
Those days are gone. We now live in the days where death threats over an imaginary story are routine. We accept that as the reality of the Twitter world.
The credibility of journalists has plummeted the last couple of years.
It’s easy to put the blame on the Todd Starnes’ of the world, but the reality is that Sports Illustrated, CNN and other outlets picked up the story. They didn’t verify the facts. They didn’t check to see what was true and what wasn’t. They just looked at the photo and heard the narrative and ran with it.
Want to fix media credibility? Remember how to actually report on a story.