MCCALL: CNN’s Covington Settlement Shows Danger Of Agenda-Based Reporting

Getty Images

Jeff McCall DePauw University
Font Size:

News organizations intent on framing news events to meet their ideological predispositions should carefully consider the legal fallout from last year’s coverage of the Covington Catholic high school students. It is risky to force news reporting into partisan sociopolitical templates.

CNN has agreed to settle a lawsuit filed earlier this year by Nicholas Sandmann, the high school student who became the focal point of news coverage when a Native American demonstrator encountered Sandmann and his classmates in Washington, D.C. That coverage, by CNN and other major news outlets, was extensive and sensational, sending the nation into an unnecessary uproar.

Sandmann was originally characterized by journalists as the aggressor in the situation, but video that surfaced later indicated that Sandmann and his classmates were generally restrained in handling the matter. Sandmann sued CNN for its mischaracterization of his role, which his attorneys said led to emotional distress, damage to Sandmann’s reputation, on-line harassment and unwanted national criticism. Sandmann has other lawsuits pending against NBC and The Washington Post. (RELATED: MCCALL: The Washington Post Is Discovering Covington Catholic Was ‘News’ It Didn’t Need To Cover)

The terms of the settlement have not been disclosed and likely never will. That CNN agreed to settle at all is noteworthy, however, regardless of whether the dollar amount is huge or minimal. For a news organization of CNN’s hefty financial backing and legal talent to not fight back on First Amendment grounds clearly indicates a resignation that its coverage did not meet professional standards.

Professionalism in journalism should demand that stories go where facts lead, and that time should be taken to gather all perspectives and necessary depth before rushing to air or print. News organizations should also use their independent gumption and not respond to pressures from social media mobs.

News coverage of the Covington Catholic students, however, failed to adhere to such professional expectations. Much of the coverage fell into what could be called “wishful thinking” reporting, designed to follow pre-determined narratives. The media exploited what was really an inconsequential passing of crowds in the nation’s capital into a massive, dramatic tirade about the intolerance of Midwestern, Catholic high school boys who had attended a pro-life march, some of whom were wearing pro-Trump hats. (RELATED: TAKALA: Despite Viewership Woes, CNN Retains Stranglehold On 58 Airports)

Such “wishful thinking” reporting leads to a narrow view, a forcing of a minor circumstance into a national issue, and a rush to saturate the news agenda before all perspectives can be assessed. This kind of agenda-pushing and sensationalism explains why news consumers have lost trust in the journalism industry. It figures, then, that 61 percent of voters are “angry at the media,” according to research published last fall by Rasmussen Reports.

News organizations should all ponder what the Sandmann settlement with CNN means. First, the entire Sandmann incident involving high school students and a demonstrator was just not newsworthy, in the traditional sense. There was no broader significance to the encounter. But because some selective video trended on social media, the major news organizations opportunistically swooped in to make ideological hay, These news outlets expanded an unfortunate and awkward chance meeting into a condemnation of the stereotyped teenagers. These high school students, including Sandmann, were exploited as props to fit the mainstream media’s characterization that people who wear MAGA hats are narrow-minded, intolerant, and culturally backward. (RELATED: CNN To Start Making Freelancers Wait 3 Months For Payment)

News organizations have tremendous power to hurt people. Dragging people onto a national news stage unnecessarily and without full context is unethical and exploitative. Even people who step willingly onto the national news stage deserve coverage that is accurate and in perspective. The Covington Catholic students didn’t need to be on the news agenda in the first place, and surely not with the narrow, judgmental perspective imposed on them.

Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a professor of communication at DePauw University.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.