Rush to Sensationalize "Occupy Murder Link" Leads to Major Media Mistakes; Where are Retractions?
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Other corrections are similarly disappointing. Gothamist, to their credit, includes the line: “Anyway, onto bigger questions, like, why are police collecting DNA from OWS crime scenes?” The writer then goes on to make a Daily Show-style protester poop joke, and the post doesn't include any apology for the original misleading headline (which I don't know if the write wrote or not). Adrien Chen, at Gawker, seems to miss the point entirely, concluding,
“Jesus. Isn't not contaminating the sample the first thing you learn in forensics class? Honestly, I believed that even the NYPD would not be so eager to smear Occupy Wall Street as to come out with a story this outlandish without getting their facts straight. Lesson learned.”
Chen is not this naïve, and this posture serves only as an attempt to remove any responsibility from himself. The initial headline, which he wrote, was: “DNA Evidence Links Occupy Wall Street Protest to 2004 Unsolved Murder.” He then defended himself on Twitter, calling the supposed DNA match “a pretty clear link.” Regardless of what one thinks about the NYPD's handling of this matter, journalists like Chen didn't get played by the cops. They willingly and excitedly bought into a story that was explicitly evidence-free, and all on their own about a “link” for which there was never any evidence.
NBC New York, the outlet responsible for breaking the fictional story, acknowledges in their correction that there may have been a screw up at the evidence lab, but then they go on to describe the murder of Sarah Fox and the Occupy-affiliated subway strike action, even though those two stories have nothing to do with one another.
A few final points on the matter.
First, even if the DNA had eventually been shown to be a match with a protester, it would still have been irresponsible for those initial reports to say there was a link when there was not yet evidence of one. It's better to error on the side of precision and specificity rather than broad innuendo. Report new evidence in the Sarah Fox case, but make it clear in both the headline and the body that at the current time nothing implicates Occupy activists in any way whatsoever. If and when that changes, report that new story.
Second, the reporter who broke the story, Jonathan Dienst of NBC New York, is the son of Richard Dienst, a high-powered attorney who, according to the Daily News, represented “a variety of police unions.” Richard Dienst died in 2010. Much of the younger Dienst's work involves NYPD-related stories, and although it's important not to replicate the sin this entire article is meant to address, this information might be of interest to NBC New York's viewers.
Third, and most importantly, it should be incredibly troubling to everyone that the NYPD is collecting DNA samples from sites of civil disobedience. That, in combination with the new wide-reaching DNA database and the iris scanning that most people who are arrested have to go through, have potentially disastrous implications.
We don't yet know who leaked the information, but regardless of who did and for what possible reasons the media failed in its coverage – not because they got the story wrong, but because even with the information they had they went for sensationalism instead of fact.
John Knefel is the co-host of Radio Dispatch and a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter at @johnknefel.