Combating media myths: Are there antidotes to the junk food of journalism?

Media-driven myths are misleading and persistent, and can have damaging consequences, as W. Joseph Campbell writes in Getting it Wrong. Some have been around for more than 100 years, and more continue to emerge from misreported news stories and widely repeated anecdotes. But as Campbell shows in this guest post, while media myths are powerful, they are not invincible.
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W. Joseph Campbell

Media-driven myths—those false, dubious, yet prominent stories about the news media that masquerade as factual—can be considered to be the junk food of journalism. They’re alluring and delicious, but not especially wholesome or healthy.

As is discussed in Getting It Wrong, media-driven myths can spring from many sources. War is an especially fertile breeding ground for media myths, partly because the shock of combat is alien and unfamiliar to most people. Given their limited first-hand experience with war, media audiences often are in no position to challenge reports from the battlefield.

“The confusion and intensity inherent in warfare can lead journalists to place fragmented information that emerges from conflict into recognizable if sometimes misleading frames,” I write in Getting It Wrong.

An example of that came early in the Iraq War in 2003, with the Washington Post’s erroneous report about the supposed battlefield heroics of Jessica Lynch, a topic discussed in Getting It Wrong. The Post’s characterization of Lynch as a female Rambo, pouring lead into attacking Iraqis, did not seem entirely implausible. It was, after all, a story picked up by news organizations throughout the world. Hurried and sloppy reporting, which certainly figured in the sensational report about Lynch, also contributes to the rise to media myths.

The myth of “crack babies” of the late 1980s and 1990s was certainly propelled by hurried reporting, by over-eager journalism and by premature medical findings. Reporters and columnists pushed too hard and eagerly on preliminary and inconclusive research about children born to women who took crack cocaine during pregnancy. The horrors that many journalists predicted—that “crack babies” would grow up to be a vast, permanently dependent class, a so-called “bio-underclass” of staggering dimension—proved quite wrong.

So are there any antidotes to media-driven myths?

I argue in Getting It Wrong that while “they spring from multiple sources, it is not as if media-driven myths are beyond being tamed.” To thwart or slow the spread of media myths, journalists might start by applying a measure of skepticism to pithy, telling quotes such as William Randolph Hearst‘s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century. Turns of phrase that sound too neat and too tidy often are too good to be true.

Journalists also would do well to cultivate greater recognition of their fallibility. Too often they seem faintly concerned with correcting the record they tarnish. They tend not to much like revisiting major flaws and errors. As Jack Shafer, media critic for the online magazine Slate, has written: “The rotten truth is that media organizations are better at correcting trivial errors of fact—proper spellings of last names, for example—than they are at fixing a botched story.”

Not surprisingly, there was no sustained effort by the news media to set straight the record about the chimerical scourge of “crack babies.” Not surprisingly, there was little sustained effort to explore and explain the distorted and badly flawed reporting from New Orleans in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall.

Encouraging a culture of skepticism and tolerance for viewpoint diversity in American newsrooms also would help curb the rise and dissemination of media-driven myths. Newsrooms can seem like bastions of group-think. Michael Kelly, the former editor of National Journal, once observed: “Reporters like to picture themselves as independent thinkers. In truth, with the exception of 13-year-old girls, there is no social subspecies more slavish to fashion, more terrified of originality and more devoted to group-think.”

Group-think and viewpoint diversity are not topics often discussed in American newsrooms. But they’re hardly irrelevant. It is not inconceivable that a robust newsroom culture that embraces encourages skepticism, invites challenges to dominant narratives, and rewards contrarian thinking would have helped thwart publication of embarrassingly mistaken tales such as the Post’s account about Jessica Lynch.

Another antidote to media-driven myths can be found in the digitization of newspapers and other media content. Digitization has made it easier than ever to consult and scrutinize source material from the past. Never has journalism’s record been more readily accessible, through such databases as ProQuest and LexisNexis.

Reading what was written makes it clear that radio dramatization of the War of the Worlds in 1938 created nothing approaching nationwide panic and hysteria. Reading what was written makes clear that Edward R. Murrow’s televised critique of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954 was belated and quite unremarkable.

Reading what was written can be a straightforward and effective antidote to media-driven myths.

W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting It Wrong, is a professor of communication at American University in Washington, D.C. He has written four other books. Getting It Wrong was launched this month in a program at the Newseum, the museum of news in downtown Washington, D.C.