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

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 16th 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, “OWS Murder 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.

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.


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