07/02/2019 Keeping an eye on the news or the media

Keeping an eye on the news or the media

In my view, future lawyers have a lot to gain by keeping an eye on the news. Following legal developments and ongoing cases can be interesting and academically rewarding for law students. However, keeping up to date with the news also means something slightly different: critically evaluating how the media functions. A recent news story in the US reveals the far-reaching consequences of media outlets and journalists falling below expected journalistic standards.

In short, national attention had been drawn to a standoff between a group of students from Covington Catholic High School and Native American protesters. The picture of Nick Sandmann, a white male student wearing a “Make American Great Again” hat, smirking at Nathan Phillips, an elderly Native American man, hit the headlines of major news sites. In addition, blue-badge journalists and public figures used Twitter to make serious accusations of racism against the students.

However, this was not the full story. An almost two-hour long video subsequently revealed that the activists had asserted themselves by challenging the group of students and chanting racist slurs at them. The smirking student, who was initially depicted as a malicious figure in the incident, calmly stared at the Native American man, who was beating a drum near his face.

My aim for this article is to set aside the political views of both groups involved in the story and focus on the agency of the media in shaping public opinion. The immediate effect of the distorted initial story was that the public was misled.

In the fortunate event that a correction is issued, it is less likely to grab the headlines than the initial report did. As a result, many readers may remain ignorant as to the truth. Those who follow the story and learn the truth are likely to lose trust in media outlets. Maybe some readers will be more prudent in the future and will carry out investigations on their own to verify sources before jumping to conclusions. However, it is unlikely that the majority of the public will step into the shoes of professional journalists and, out of distrust, many will simply choose not to believe anything at all.

It is interesting to consider the reason why media outlets and journalists took this approach. One possible answer is that the polarisation of society creates a strong incentive for the media to take sides and depart from objective, evidence-based reporting. Rather than providing an impartial viewpoint to keep misconceptions under scrutiny, the media can become a mechanism for enforcing pre-existing beliefs and advocating particular ideals. The pressing question is: what goals are worth pursuing at all costs?

It will be interesting to see whether this incident gives rise to a legal claim against certain media outlets. As a member of a media platform myself, I hope that the incident will be seen by the public at large as a warning against drawing conclusions without reliable, evidence-based arguments.

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