Context, balance key in good reporting

“Context is key.”

I’ve shared those words with young college journalism students when I taught basic reporting classes several years ago.

I also shared those words in a column almost exactly one year ago when I wrote about the viral video of young Covington, Ky., high school student Nick Sandmann, portrayed in a negative light by some in the national media. Sandmann had been caught on video facing an elderly Native American man, Nathan Phillips, when their paths crossed by chance in Washington, D.C., last January.

The boy and his Catholic high school classmates, who were in D.C. to participate in a March for Life, had been captured on cellphone video when they encountered the older man who was beating a hand-held drum and chanting outside the Lincoln Memorial. Phillips was in D.C. for the Indigenous People’s March.

One can assume the video gained steam on social media because Sandmann had been wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat in support of President Donald Trump.

National media picked it up quickly and reported on the incident — most before all the facts were in.

Another video surfaced days later providing additional context for the encounter, but the first video had gone viral, touching off widespread controversy.

In the second video, a group of black men who identified as members of the Black Hebrew Israelites were seen taunting the Kentucky high school students and shouting racist slurs at participants in the Indigenous Peoples Rally.

Sandmann at the time strongly denied accusations against him.

Sandmann later filed suit against CNN, The Washington Post and NBC Universal, claiming those media organizations falsely labeled him a racist. He sought damages worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Indeed, some media commentary in the aftermath depicted Sandmann and his classmates as racially insensitive. Sandmann and Phillips later said they were both trying to defuse tensions among conflicting groups converging at the Memorial.

The whole issue, of course, was back in the news last week because CNN settled its lawsuit with Sandmann. Figures and other details of the settlement remain undisclosed, but Sandmann’s suit had originally sought $275 million in damages. His civil suits against NBC and the Post are continuing.

At the time, I was frustrated by the way the story was reported in the national media. Certainly, I wasn’t in D.C. to witness the incident firsthand, so like everyone else, I found myself at the mercy of the national news media reporting on the story.

And let me tell you, it was difficult to find any national media reporting a complete and balanced story.

How quickly we forget the lessons we are taught in journalism school!

I experienced the same frustration this past week as I toggled between CNN and Fox News hoping between the two, I might be able to get a balanced report of Iran’s missile attack in response to America’s drone killing of Iranian Major Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

I was looking for the facts — not the liberal commentary being delivered on CNN and lashing out at Trump’s shortcomings in the aftermath of the attack.

And I was looking for balance and details — not the criticism of how other media was reporting on the story, which is all I got from Fox News commentators.

Why is it so hard for consumers of national news to get the deserved balance from those who are supposed to be professional journalists?

If it is so hard for me — a longtime, professional journalist who understands how it’s supposed to work — it’s no wonder that average Americans simply seeking to be educated and informed on the events of the day have become so confused and divided on issues.

Members of the national media should work harder to keep the commentary and condemnations to themselves. Just report the news — and deliver the facts in the correct context.



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