As an old-time newspaperman believing I’ve acquired a few pearls of wisdom to pass on to the upcoming generation before I amble off into the night, the astonishing news coverage of the June 12 massacre in Orlando left me in a state of apoplexy. It has also presented a formidable challenge, going forward, to any words of wisdom I might have for up-and-coming newswriters in terms of “higher brands” after whom to model their pursuit of integrity in reporting.
Even the most recognizable brands inexplicably lent themselves to advancing a non-factual statement about the social condition — one that masked, or at least downplayed, the reality painted by the evidence in the aftermath of a deadly shooting spree that left 49 people dead and 53 seriously wounded at the gay nightclub Pulse.
Electronic and print brands alike, no matter how notable and decorated, found themselves caught up in a narrative that very quickly left the evidence in its dust: describing the massacre as a hate crime directed at the LGBT community, to the exclusion of apparent Islamic jihad having been carried out in the name of ISIS.
The narrative suggested by the evidence — on the ground, from eyewitnesses, from 911 dispatch, from law enforcement officials (including the FBI) and at least one media outlet that claims the shooter called the station looking for publicity for his heinous deed — was that an act of radical Islamic terrorism had taken place. It was soon discovered that the shooter had also cased Disney World Resort and Disney Springs shopping complex as potential sites for his personal jihad, and that his rantings were anti-West and pro-ISIS, not anti-gay.
Yet, latent-homophobia-in-the-West and easy-access-to-guns were the avenues pursued as news outlets wrung sorry hands and pondered probable causes. So myopic and lacking in integrity was the collective reporting, not to mention the indifference to the political spin coming out of Washington, that it laid waste to the traditional expectations of the fourth estate.
Where the imperative in news reporting is always story fidelity over narrative fidelity, the fourth estate let us down in spectacular fashion on this one.
Protect the integrity of the factual story from the needs of wanton narrative is one of the key points I attempt to convey to eager young reporters who hear me in a seminar, classroom or newsroom setting. Never let a desired or assumed outcome lead the reader into places where facts would not willingly go.
But what can one traditional voice, in relative humble surroundings yet, possibly say that would be heard above the roar of, say, The New York Times or The Washington Post and their immense brand recognition? Even with a history spotted by occasionally getting it wrong, and with documented cases of egregious forgery and sleight of hand in its reporting, audiences still check the Times’s position to determine what they should believe.
In Canada, TV matrons urged their audiences to recognize the homophobia angle they seemed convinced lay at the root of the rampage, while going light on the staggering avalanche of ISIS-specific evidence. The CBC’s Wendy Mesley spoke in hushed reverence about the shattering of “a safe space” for a community all too familiar with hate — as though that simplistic intro summed up the complexity of the story. Enough said.
Our daily newspapers did a better job, for the most part.
The Toronto Star carried Associated Press news feeds that sifted through the mounting data without obvious weighting in one direction or the other; a story by Alexander Panetta, of The Canadian Press, was a naturally occurring example of how the blunt impact on the immediate gay community could intelligently be represented without downplaying the reality of what actually happened, and without going over the top. The Globe and Mail did a reasonable job of presenting facts on its news pages, though the thematic aims of columns by John Ibbitson and Tabatha Southey were not to be impeded by facts such as the shooter having cased non-gay venues before settling on Pulse as the site for his rampage against “the filthy ways of the west.”
Though restricted to a limited Toronto audience, this grotesquely self-indulgent piece (given the context of immense sorrow in Orlando) is indicative of the wild places the chosen narrative, once unbridled, was allowed to go. While relating in glowing terms the details that describe complete and utter familial acceptance of her same-sex mating decision, CityNews anchor Avery Haines nevertheless demands the reader find, lurking between the lines, evidence of a societal hatred that unites her life situation with the presumably perceived noble victimhood of those slain in Orlando.
However, accounts that could be appreciated for speaking truly to the impact on the LGBTQ community, without becoming confused with narcissistic photo bombing of a tragic event, did turn up. Some fine side stories that put a human face on the tragedy did justice to survivors, those lost and those left with unfathomable loss, and faithfully recognized the bonds in gay communities near and far that shared the brokenness with Orlando on a deeply personal level. There were tales of heroism, sidebars that shone light on law enforcement perspectives and analysis, and the expected investigations into whether the shooter’s motivation was indeed related to the venue being a gay nightclub — or if any link between the shooter and certain victims might exist. This constituted the due diligence expected of reporters covering a story of this magnitude.
But stories pointing to hate directed at the LGBTQ community specifically were what carried the day. In tripping over itself to lament an imagined hatred of homosexuals latent in Western society, the mass media implied a righteous hatred of its own — directed at the so-called “homophobic” element not yet fully silenced.
Facts set aside, the narrative that got fed described the shooter as an unstable man, tormented by his sexuality, martyring gay men with guns he should never have had access to. An explosion of side stories and armchair analysis dug into his sexual state of being, found verification that he’d visited Pulse before, located men willing to testify that he was a homosexual (of some standing at least), and explored a possible connection between June 12 being Latin Night at the club and his having been spurned at some point by a Puerto Rican man. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who had spent the better part of a week trying to keep the Islam-specific nature of the shooter’s 911 calls and Facebook posts out of the public eye, capped it off on June 21 by telling the LGBTQ community in Orlando, “The message of Orlando is a message of determination to remove hatred, to remove intolerance from our midst.”
In an environment thus created, President Barrack Obama and the Department of Justice were emboldened to work and rework the facts to fashion new things right before our eyes. It should come as no surprise, really, where exists the perfect storm of a disinterested fourth estate coupled with a functionally illiterate audience (check the comments section at the bottom of stories on even the most prestigious news sites). The President steered the narrative toward a need for tighter gun control measures, while tiptoeing around any reference to radical Islamic terror; the DoJ busied itself with promoting the idea that homophobia was the root cause, while attempting first to withhold and then to make adjustments to recorded evidence that, in his own words, the shooter was acting — as a self-imposed warrior or otherwise — on behalf of ISIS, and of Allah as well.
The reporting, as the week progressed, gave as much play to these fabrications as it did to the revelations that the shooter pledged allegiance to the ISIS leader, called for the U.S. and Russia to stop bombing ISIS targets, ranted about “the filthy ways of the west” (but nothing about homosexuals specifically) as a supposed affront to Allah, and declared his actions as making the enemy feel the wrath of ISIS. Frozen in place, the media refused to distinguish between fact-based and agenda-driven narratives.
Such dereliction of duty, when measured against the nature of information dispensation in the Internet age, serves to dangerously blur the lines between standard reporting practices and what one would expect to find in thinly sourced fare on some alternative media sites. The appetites and belief systems particular to millennials (already the demographic of note), as well as the increasingly malleable nature of facts in popular culture (bolstering of pre-existing positions tends to be of great importance in public discourse), make such neglect an existential threat for traditional mass media.
There is forgiveness to be had for getting it wrong the first time, considering the chaos inherent in a large-scale calamitous event. But not for doubling down on a narrative proven false by emerging facts. As journalists, our role is not to shape public opinion (though we are aware we sometimes do). To willfully misinform transfers ownership of any agenda attached to the advancement of a false narrative — be it for gain or malice — directly to the offending news outlet. Good journalism did not prevail.
Newspaper editorialists around the world were not wrong in recognizing, in the larger picture, reasons to weigh in on intolerance and on the issue of easy access to guns in America. Nor is it a stretch to argue these as contributing factors. But the evidence is not there to finger them as the primary reason those particular people were slain in that particular place. News feeds and editorials needed to reflect that, and the significance of the 30-year-old U.S.-born shooter, venting from the scene his anti-West rhetoric to English-speaking 911 operators in Arabic should not be beyond consideration by any competent, honest reporter.
Derelict in duty and integrity, the media failed to sort through the evidence discovered and failed to truthfully determine the hierarchical order of importance of what it elected to publish — all the while fully aware of the picture forming in the public’s mind.
The motivations behind a false narrative being allowed to carry the day on such a wide scale could lie anywhere between a need to appease corporate expectations of political alignment and misguided attempts to avoid offending with an ugly truth, or even cynical regard for the very audience that increasingly prefers a fairy tale that reflects the values espoused by leaders they admire over harsh reality. I would wager me-too copycat journalism is a more likely culprit in feeding the wildfire that so quickly got out of control. That and the ever-shrinking number of independently owned enterprises supplying news to the reading public.
At any rate, the integrity malfunction we all got to see was a colossal one.