Opinion: Media Mangle

Don‘t Let the Narrative Trump The Facts

You’d have thought by now that the news media would have learned the hard lessons of prejudging a story or a situation before all the facts are in.

Remember in 2006 when the accuser in the Duke lacrosse rape hoax, Crystal Mangum, was dubbed a “single mom” and a “college student” early on after she made her allegations? And remember how the entire lacrosse team was characterized as “rich white boys” eager to take advantage of a minority woman?

When all that turned out to be entirely inaccurate, you’d think the media would have said to themselves, “Boy, we really stepped in it on that one. We better not do that again.”

But they have done that again, most recently in the Ferguson, Mo., case in which a white police officer shot an unarmed black man. Immediately after the shooting, we were told that Michael Brown, the man who was shot, was a “gentle giant” who was on his way to his grandmother’s house and was looking forward to starting his college courses.

That narrative held for a few days and became as fixed in the minds of many as the view of Crystal Mangum as a hardworking, single-mom college student. But then a video of Brown robbing a convenience store and roughing up the diminutive immigrant store owner surfaced.

That strong-arm robbery occurred minutes before Brown was shot, and his actions in the store told an entirely different story from the “gentle giant” meme that the media had promoted in previous days.

Also in the original reporting was the narrative that Brown was shot in the back while running away from officer Darren Wilson. This came from an eyewitness, Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson, who, unbeknownst at the time, was his alleged accomplice in the robbery. Hardly an unimpeachable source, to say the least. But the media ran with the details Johnson cited, and they were reported worldwide for days.

Subsequent autopsies showed, however, that there was no wound to Brown’s back, only to his front. Then came reports of injuries to Wilson, apparently as a result of a fight with Brown, who, at nearly 300 pounds, outweighed Wilson considerably. This didn’t square with Johnson’s version of events, either.

As a result, a sense of outrage and injustice based on erroneous and incomplete information set the community afire. As facts were still incomplete, the media portrayed the looting and rioting as a natural reaction to the injustice that their incomplete reporting seemed to show.

When will the media learn to wait to find out what really happened before writing history? How many times must this happen before they learn that their insistence on pushing an erroneous narrative is dangerous and irresponsible?

Jon Ham (@rivlax) is a vice president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.