Monthly Archives: April 2013

“stir up the animals” the role of media in terrorist suspects

Today we discussed the role of the media in light of the Boston Marathon bombings (full disclosure, my husband works in Boston. His office is feet from the finish line, which is now a crime scene, so Tuesday was a rough day to teach.  I find that coming to the classroom helps me process, and I find such joy here).

One student noted that it was irresponsible for the media to release suspect ethnicities and possibly incite hatred until the facts were correct.  This marries with our recent discussion of Hearst and Pulitzer and yellow journalism and muckraking.


As I drove to work the DJs were screaming.  I was tuned to a station coming out of South Carolina and a woman was accusing the DJ of hate mongering as the DJ was repeating news he heard on CNN about the ethic background of a suspect.  The DJ yelled that he was simply repeating what CNN said.

It is notable that The FBI made no mention of the men’s height, weight or age range and would not discuss the men’s ethnicity. “It would be inappropriate to comment on the ethnicity of the men because it could lead people down the wrong path potentially,” said FBI agent Greg Comcowich, a spokesman for the Boston FBI office.

Yet, a source confirmed to on Tuesday April 16th that “the person of interest is a 20-year-old Saudi. His Facebook page identifies him as a current or former student at the New England School of English. He is believed to have entered the country on a student visa. The source stressed that Alharbi is a person of interest, not a suspect, and said he suffered serious injuries in the explosion.”

Damage done.  Posts on the website FrontPageMag include comments inciting hatred against Saudi Arabians.

The problem is that in the digital age, you can’t take back an accusation.  One false bit of information on a media outlet is repeated on blogs and facebook and twitter until it becomes the Truth.  When an apology is made or a retraction, it does not filter down to those levels. The original supposition remains true in many eyes.

I’ve always put muckrakers on a pedestal.  I believe in the media as the 4th estate and as blogs as the 5th estate.  We hold the powerful accountable.  We help break news, but we should not be making the news. One famous quote is that reporters are the only people other than emergency responders who run towards the crises. But, in the urgency to report, to scoop, to inform are we doing a disservice to say “It is believed that….”

So, what does the media do?  Do we wait until all sources are verified?  Roosevelt tempered his praise for muckrakers with this. “Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck rake, speedily becomes, not a help but one of the most potent forces for evil.”

Mencken was famous for wanting to “stir up the animals” and he said that “a newspaper should tell the truth, however unpleasant.”  Agreed, but when does the truth become the truth and not speculation? Can we harm an individual or group by releasing speculation and can we harm an individual or group but withholding speculation?


accidental porn

This week we have been discussing the role of truth in journalism.  We explored D’Agata and James Frey and Mike Daisy.  We listened to the NPR interview with fact checker Jim Fingal and D’Agata and we had a generous discussion on the role of truth versus facts. And, of course we needed to include, Stephen Glass, famous as a journalist who made up entire sources, stories etc.  Here is the handy chart, borrowed from Slate, that we looked at in class.


The Stephen Glass story was made into a movie.  I recall it was called Broken Glass or Shattered Glass or some such. So, I checked IMBD, found Broken Glass, and began to play the trailer.  About 5 seconds into the trailer the students were saying, “uh, Lockie, I don’t think this is the correct movie.”  Splashed up on the big media screen was not a newsroom with Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass defending his sources. Instead it was clearly a bedroom scene.  Nothing too steamy, just an arm and some sheets, but clearly not a newsroom. The IMBD description of Broken Glass reads:

“Through seven bottles of cursed wine, we follow the journey of Valentina, a beautiful artist living in Berlin. With a sordid history of sexual and physical abuse, and having been caught in the arms of her female lover by her wealthy, overbearing mother, Val is forced to make a choice: to live a “normal” life, or be forever cut off – financially and emotionally. She concedes to her mother’s ultimatum, and pursues a heterosexual relationship to appease her, only to catch her new boyfriend in bed with another man. Her inability to cope with her life triggers her repressed male alter-ego to emerge and take over.”

While the IMBD description of Scattered Glass (Which I discovered is the trailer I should have been showing) reads:

“The true story of a young journalist who fell from grace when it was found he had fabricated over half of his articles.”

I was red-faced for the balance of class. We did eventually play the correct trailer, but as one student left the classroom he said, “I’m going to tell my friends you made us watch porn.”

Not my best teaching moment but I bet they remember who Stephen Glass is now.