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Rush to Sensationalize "Occupy Murder Link" Leads to Major Media Mistakes; Where are Retractions?

Despite dubious, anonymous sourcing and the total lack of evidence to implicate Occupy Wall Street protesters, the media jumped on the would-be scandal.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Sarah Jaffe

 
 
 
 

Media outlets scrambled over themselves early this week in an attempt to out-sensationalize one another after NBC New York reported that DNA found at an Occupy Wall Street protest matched DNA from the unsolved 2004 murder of Sarah Fox. The stories – and especially the accompanying headlines – reveal a blatant disregard for temperance, restraint, and fact-based reporting by virtually every outlet that covered the story. In that way this episode has been illuminating, not because this series of botched stories is an aberration, but rather because it highlights exactly how the media always functions. It's just that in this case their bankrupt priorities and incentives were revealed more nakedly than usual.

The various updates and corrections reveal volumes about how this story played out, but it's important to remember that the initial stories themselves were deeply flawed. Even without the later revelations, the framing of the reporting was unsubstantiated at best and blatantly false at worst. NBC New York, who first reported the story, went with the headline: “DNA from Sarah Fox Murder Scene Linked to Chain Used in Occupy Wall Street Protest”. That's quite an allegation. Certainly “linked” is a unclear verb, specific enough to suggest guilt through innuendo, but vague enough to allow for plausible deniability. It's not until the 16 th paragraph of this thinly-sourced story that the reporters write, “[t]here's no immediate evidence that the DNA belongs to the protesters who chained open the gates.”

Despite the dubious, anonymous sourcing and the total lack of evidence to implicate Occupy Wall Street protesters, the media jumped on the would-be scandal. The cover of the New York Post read, “ OWSMurder Link”. The New York Times' headline for the story also included the word “link”, as did Gawker's, and numerous other outlets (even more if you include “tied,” or “chained”).

The New York City-centric Gothamist set itself apart from the pack with the freshman-level link bait: “Did Someone From Occupy Wall Street Kill Sarah Fox?”  What a great question! What a great way to practice journalism! I want to try. “Did Gothamist only obtain its NYPD press credentials because they promised to advance pro-Cop, anti-protester narratives?” Find the answer after the jump. JUMP. The answer is no. In fact, Gothamist has reported diligently and fairly on Occupy for months and they – especially Christopher Robins – deserve immense credit for their work as a whole. (Full disclosure, I contributed to a Gothamist story about the D17 OWS trial.) In fact the story itself is not bad – it's the headline that's the problem.

And everybody who writes online makes mistakes. That's not what this was in the case of Gothamist or any of the other outlets mentioned above. This was not a mistake in the way that they got the facts wrong. Most stories I read contained some version of the NBC New York line, “There's no immediate evidence that the DNA belongs to the protesters who chained open the gates . So the reporters and their editors (who often, though not always, write the headline), had the most important fact staring them in the face, namely that there was no evidence tying Occupy protesters to Sarah Fox's murder. Using innuendo to smear a political movement by implying a “link” between a political action and a murder when, again, there was no evidence that the DNA belonged to anyone affiliated with Occupy is journalism at its least critical.

Now, to move on to the updates. After the New York Times published a report questioning the reliability of the evidence, the whole story fell apart and corrections started appearing. But as Propublica's Justin Elliott pointed out on Twitter, yesterday's NY Post was a 37 paragraph, front page story screaming “OWS MURDER LINK”. Today's retraction is 4 paragraphs.

 
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