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|How to get it right|
After the story broke last week that 20-year-old Sharmeka Moffitt supposedly had been attacked and set afire by three perpetrators in Civitan Park in Winnsboro, residents throughout northeastern Louisiana and beyond were devastated, outraged and looking for answers.
When an incident such as the one involving Moffitt occurs, it is a natural tendency to turn to the media for answers. We expect the media — newspapers, magazines, television and radio — to do its best in reporting the facts, to cite officials or authority figures who are personally involved in the case or that incident.
One media outlet in northeastern Louisiana that got to the bottom of case concerning Moffitt and correctly reported the facts surrounding the incident was The Franklin Sun. Instead of irresponsibly spreading rumors and innuendo perpetrated by social media and the like, The Franklin Sun stuck to what works best: the newspaper put its feet on the ground, did its own digging into the case, and relied on professional, trained law enforcement officials to tell us what happened at Civitan Park.
That is why The Franklin Sun learned and first reported that Moffitt set herself on fire and concocted the false story that three white-hoodied individuals burned her and wrote the inflammatory phrase "KKK nigger" on the hood of her automobile.
To be clear, The Franklin Sun did not obtain this information from the Internet. Instead, The Franklin Sun avoided the rumor mill and, in doing so, avoided a rush to judgment.
Sadly, that was not the case everywhere. A cursory glance at other regional media outlets during this breaking news story revealed one thing. Most media outlets were more interested in selling hot-button headlines than serving as voices of reason, fact and responsibility. After all, carelessly inciting a race war gets more Internet hits on a news web site.
Responsible journalism is not about pushing words around on paper as if they are completely disjointed from substance. The choices we as newspaper editors make in telling these stories shape public opinion. It is a tremendous responsibility.
The knee-jerk reaction, though, to hearing the racist words scrawled onto the hood of Moffitt's car spun the media into a race-baiting frenzy. And it put Franklin Parish on edge.
Other details in Moffitt's story seemed to skitter largely unnoticed. Before detectives had the chance to complete an investigation and, in some instances, before that investigation had gotten under way in earnest, headlines appeared in newspapers, on websites and in television news reports from northeastern Louisiana to the United Kingdom. Those headlines were designed to take the single most sensational piece of evidence and "sell" the product — the newspaper, website or news broadcast — based on the emotional response the headlines created in the reader. That kind of reporting was not only irresponsible, it was downright dangerous.
An online article distributed by the venerated Associated Press carried the headline, "Louisiana woman says three racist men set her on fire."
The fact of the matter is Moffitt never said three racist men set her on fire.
By Monday evening, googling Moffitt's name revealed thousands of stories with headlines such as, "Black woman in Louisiana set on fire by three men, KKK spray-painted on her car," and, "Woman set ablaze in Louisiana KKK related attack."
The rumors did not stop at the inflammatory headlines. The Black Enterprise web site posed a question in their headline: "Louisiana woman set on fire by KKK over supporting Obama?"
In each of the erroneous headlines, from local media to national bloggers, the inclusion of KKK in the headline pushed the story to become the hot topic of the day. All the while, those media outlets overlooked pleas from Winnsboro Police Chief Lester Thomas and Franklin Parish Sheriff Kevin Cobb to reserve judgment, to stand united and to wait until investigators finished doing the job of investigating.
Thankfully, in hindsight, law enforcement officials avoided calls from local black leaders, media pundits and individuals from around the world to label Moffitt's "attack" a hate crime.
One organization that exercised appropriate reserve during the media frenzy was the NAACP's national office, which released a statement urging authorities to conduct a thorough investigation of the incident. Also, state NAACP president Ernest L. Johnson Sr. offered condolences to the Moffitt family but reserved judgment that Moffitt's "attack" was a hate crime.
What did Johnson, the NAACP's national leadership and The Franklin Sun know that so many other seasoned local and national media outlets did not know?
Perhaps it was the fact that social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter cannot be trusted. To put it another way, you just can't tell a whole story in 140 characters.
Yet, the reservations expressed by law enforcement officials and echoed by the leadership of this nation's largest and most vocal minority advocacy group went unheard. Instead of waiting, the irresponsible reporting continued. An updated story on a local news web site Monday afternoon portrayed the victim, Moffitt, as "clinging to life" as doctors fought to prevent her death at LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport. Gone, now, was any semblance of a "wait and see" approach to Moffitt's story. The fact was, according to "the media," Moffitt was attacked. Period.
There was just one problem: she was not attacked.
And for those journalists who allowed law enforcement to do their investigation, the reward came when the facts became known.
The officials had converged on the scene at Civitan Park as fast as they would have for any one of us. They took Moffitt's claims to be true and began their investigation based on her story. They gathered evidence at the scene, conducted analyses of that evidence and arrived at their conclusion. Only after investigators had examined enough physical evidence did they determine that the victim's burns were self-inflicted.
It is worth repeating. The Franklin Sun published the first verified and true account of the events in Civitan Park.
As they usually do, patience and responsibility paid off.
Within minutes of posting the story on The Franklin Sun web site, "Sharmeka Moffitt" was trending on Twitter. At first, people expressed outrage with The Franklin Sun for accusing Moffitt of burning herself. Then, as the details contained in The Franklin Sun report sank in, that outrage softened, vanished and then reappeared. Only, this time, the outrage was directed not at media outlets and not at the mythical involvement of the KKK.
People were angry with Moffitt.
There are lessons to be learned, to be clear. Social media is a powerful and dangerous force. It is a resource that can be used to spread information quickly, whether that information is true or not. Yet, should social media be used as a source for journalists pursuing the nuances of fact and truth?
The answer to that question is a resounding "no."