Getting it Wrong: How to spot media myths in the making
The scene at the San Jose Mine in Chile was emotional enough to bring tears to many a newscaster’s eyes last week, as hundreds of jubilant reporters relayed the triumphant story of 33 valiant men surviving 10 weeks trapped in a collapsed mine to be rescued, mostly safe and sound.
Which made communications professor and author W. Joseph Campbell wonder if he was seeing another media myth in the making.
Campbell, who teaches at American University in Washington D.C., has already excavated 10 other events he calls “the greatest misreported stories in American journalism” in his new book Getting it Wrong.
Turns out, the mainstream media really does have a bias. But it's much more focused on conflict, simple explanations, compelling stories and proving its own power than any political outlook.
Campbell's analysis picks apart a score of cherished media truisms -- everything from the notion that the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down the Nixon White House with their Watergate reporting (action by the FBI, U.S. Congress and Supreme Court actually did that), to the myth of babies born to crack-addicted moms swamping the country and the idea that CBS anchor man Walter Cronkite turned back public opinion on the Vietnam War with a single critical broadcast (public opinion had been souring on the war for months).
And with an example recent as the exaggerated reports of rampant rapes and killing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Campbell sees the possibility for new examples, especially in our 24/7 media culture. “Some people have called it ‘out there’ syndrome,” said the professor. “If some news organizations are out there reporting what seems to be a good story, the pressure to confirm it can be intense.”
Here’s a few more clues to spot media myths in the making:
The story seems too good to be true. Campbell started this book while working on another one about America’s Yellow Journalism period, when legendary newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst was credited with using his power to start the Spanish-American War, telling a famous painter he sent to Cuba,“You supply the pictures, I’ll supply the war.”
But Campbell found no proof Hearst sent such a telegram, Hearst himself denied it, and fighting was likely already underway when painter Frederic Remington was there. “On their face, (myths) are deliciously good stories,” Campbell said. “Hearst’s quote is neat and tidy. But do people talk like that, really?”
The myths give great power to the news media. Journalists often cite Woodward and Bernstein as inspiring an uptick in journalism school enrollment and praise Cronkite for ending the Vietnam War to illustrate journalism's transformative power, even when the story may not be entirely true. “The stories place news media at the center of decisive moments in history,” said Campbell, who described how the book and film All the President’s Men helped cement the idea that the Washington Post decisively brought down Nixon.
The myths simplify complex subjects. Watergate was a sprawling scandal that took years to unfold, involved multiple investigations and sent 19 men to jail. Summing it all up in the work of two reporters and mysterious unnamed source “Deep Throat” helped distill a complex, important event into an easily understood narrative. Along the way, it perpetuated the idea of journalists as heroes, which other journalists really appreciate.
On his blog (mediamythalert.wordpress.com), Campbell notes recent instances perpetuating the myths, from Katrina retrospectives which omit how badly some news outlets screwed up initial reporting to talk about Woodward’s new book repeating the old idea that he brought down Nixon.
“These myths live on, despite the attempts by some principals to debunk them,” he said, noting how Woodward himself has resisted the idea his work ended Nixon’s presidency. “Which is why you have to be vigilant and a bit skeptical.”