After winning on “Jeopardy!” for the third straight night back in April, Kelly Donohue banged three fingers against his chest to quietly celebrate his victory. But to a group of former contestants, that simple gesture was definitely, maybe, possibly a white power symbol.
Despite a jointly-signed letter that seemed to question its own conclusion about Donohue’s hand motion, news organizations raced to cover the budding controversy on one of the country’s most-watch television programs. That included embedding the same handful of outrage tweets (including one verified account from an E! News manager) that appeared to support the allegation.
Only it turned out to be a non-story. During the two previous episodes, Donohue had held up one finger after his first victory and two fingers after his second. In a Facebook post, he “unequivocally” condemned white supremacy and racism of any kind, and made it clear his only intention was to mark his third victory. And a close look at the photo in question, which unsurprisingly went viral on social media, reveals that Donohue wasn’t even making the “OK” gesture he was sort of accused of flashing.
Stopping the spread of misinformation, especially following the 2016 presidential election and Russia’s attempt to impact the outcome, has been a focus and priority of the media industry for the past several years. It’s obvious social media has become a cesspool of fake news and toxic misinformation, and it’s the job of credible news organizations to sort fact from fiction to keep readers properly informed.
So how did such a shaky story on its face get picked up by so many credible news organizations? Two words: easy clicks.
Sadly, it happens all the time in our business as the need to drive traffic for both ad revenue and digital subscription sales (moving those readers down the funnel) creates pressure to perform. Suddenly, all the high-minded goals of public service are thrown out the window as we quickly aggregate stories with social media traffic on our minds and Google Trends opened in an adjacent tab.
Last year, several news organizations—including CNN and the Washington Post—were forced to settle lawsuits made on behalf of Nicholas Sandmann, a teenager who was basically vilified after video of a confrontation with Native American activist Nathan Phillips went viral on social media in 2019.
With just a few short clips of the incident and Phillips’ inaccurate explanation of what happened, news organizations ran with a story that seemed to encapsulate former President Donald Trump and his supporters. Phillips claimed the boy and other teens had blocked him from walking and chanted, “Build that wall, build that wall.”
Quickly, longer videos emerged that disproved Phillips’ statements and exonerated Sandmann, who was waiting at the Lincoln Memorial alongside classmates following a tour. In fact, it was Phillips that walked up to the teens in the first place, making a confrontation all but inevitable.
The New York Times’ first headline on their coverage was: “Viral Video Shows Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Surrounding Native Elder.” Its follow-up story was headlined "Fuller Picture Emerges of Viral Video of Native American Man and Catholic Students."
It’s hard to ignore a story dominating both social media and cable news. Believe me, I’ve been there. No news organization wants to seem out of touch, especially about a story everyone appears to be talking about. But that’s exactly what reporters and editors should have done.
“Among other things, journalistic ethics held that if you didn’t have the reporting to support a story, and if that story had the potential to hurt its subjects, and if those subjects were private citizens, and if they were moreover minors, you didn’t run the story,” wrote The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan. “You kept reporting it; you let yourself get scooped; and you accepted that speed is not the highest value. Otherwise, you were the trash press.”
Another lesson for journalists moving forward is just because everyone on Twitter seems to agree with you about it doesn’t mean they’re accurate. In Sandmann’s case, a MAGA hat and a crying Native American was all most reporters felt they needed to tell the story. In Donohue’s case, he’s white and there was reportedly a picture of him in the same red MAGA hat on his Facebook page, so, of course he was flashing a white power symbol on national television… allegedly.
Sometimes, it’s the easy layups that can trip us up the most.
In 2019, many high-profile news outlets wrote the same basic story about a viral study purporting to show that half the adults in America have used the pool as a substitute for taking a shower. It was former then-ProPublica reporter Jessica Huseman who pointed out the study was actually an unscientific survey of just 3,100 people conducted online by Sachs Media Group, a public relations firm that counts the chlorine industry among its clients.
“I did more reporting on this survey on my phone in 10 min at 2 a.m. than any of these reporters who got paid to write that,” Huseman wrote on Twitter, adding that if the results of a poll “seem weird” or ask questions no one really cares about, then chances are good “it’s a crap poll or industry sponsored.”
You might think that’s an innocent mistake that didn’t harm anyone, including readers. But that same week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an overlooked report that revealed pool chemical injuries led to an estimated 13,508 emergency department visits in the U.S. between 2015 and 2017.
Doctors follow the credo Primum non nocere, which translates in English to “First do no harm.” Journalists would do well to adopt it as their own, a reminder that while we live and work in a rapidly-accelerating digital landscape; sometimes the best way to address misinformation is to avoid being the outlet spreading it in your community.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at email@example.com.