W. Joseph Campbell

A cautionary note on early coverage of dramatic events

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on May 3, 2011 at 8:17 am

Amid yesterday’s jubilation about the slaying of terror leader Osama bin Laden, the media critic at slate.com, Jack Shafer, posted a timely and telling reminder that initial news reports of major events seldom are reliable.

This is especially so, I would add, in covering disasters: The early accounts almost always are erroneous.

Got it wrong in New Orleans

The coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, which I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, is instructive: News reports about the surreal violence that the storm supposedly unleashed on New Orleans in late summer 2005 were highly exaggerated and wildly inaccurate.

“Katrina’s aftermath was no high, heroic moment in American journalism,” I write, adding, “On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong. ”

In his column about the coverage of the killing of bin Laden, Shafer noted that “the fog of breaking news almost always cloaks the truth, especially when the deadline news event is a super-top-secret military operation conducted by commandos halfway around the world and the sources of the sexiest information go unnamed.”

He pointed out the wide variance in the early reports about bin Laden’s violent end, noting such discrepancies as these:

  • ABC News: “He was shot in the head and then shot again to make sure he was dead.”
  • The Atlantic: “One of the dead was Osama bin Laden, done in by a double tap—boom, boom—to the left side of his face.”
  • The London Sun: “Elite troops opened fire when the 9/11 terror chief refused to surrender, hitting him in the head and chest. …”
  • MSNBC.com: “[H]e was shot in the left eye.”

Shafer added: “At some point, after reporters have time to independently report the events behind the raid, we’ll have a verified picture of who did what when instead of the official versions we’re reading and viewing today. Until then, it’s caveat emptor for news consumers.”

Journalists would do well to offer such reminders more frequently than they do.

Cautionary notes ought to be routine, as should specific reference to the challenges of reporting military operations from afar.

Such distance-reporting, after all, can give rise to errors that are both memorable and acutely embarrassingly. The Jessica Lynch case, which unfolded during the early days of the Iraq War in 2003 and which is discussed in Getting It Wrong, is memorable in that regard.

The Washington Post, drawing on sources it has never identified (but should), offered the world a sensational report about the battlefield heroics of Lynch, then a 19-year-old Army supply clerk who never expected to see combat.

Elements of her units fell under ambush in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq on March 23, 2003.

According to the Post’s front-page article — which was mostly reported by journalists based in Washington — Lynch “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting” at Nasiriyah.

The newspaper also said Lynch was “stabbed when Iraqi forces closed in on her position.”

The Post’s sensational report about Lynch was picked up by news outlets around the country and the world. But it was wrong, utterly wrong.

Lynch never fired a shot at Nasiriyah. Her rifle jammed during the ambush. She suffered shattering injuries when a rocket-propelled grenade struck her Humvee, causing the vehicle to crash.

But she was neither shot nor stabbed.

Lynch was taken prisoner and treated at an Iraqi hospital where she lingered near death before being rescued on April 1, 2003, by a U.S. special operations team.

The Post report offers another reminder about covering combat — the passage of time is no guarantee of accuracy in reporting. The sensational account about Lynch appeared on the Post’s front page of April 3, 2003, 11 days after the ambush at Nasiriyah.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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