On the morning of January 19th, 2007, FOX NEWS reported that 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama allegedly attended a fundamentalist Muslim school known as a madrassa for the first decade of his life. A few days later, CNN and other news sources debunked the story, and exposed FOX for presenting a poorly researched rumor as factual background of the Illinois senator. FOX later apologized, but many fear the damage has already been done. As the presidential campaigns get under way, we talk with Communications Instructor Sarah Worley about the true power of these 'slip-ups.'
Can Barack Obama recover from this disinformation?
I think he can recover. At this point it serves as a distraction and ultimately a waste of time. The choice he faces in these situations is whether to even respond, i.e. devote his time and energy to the issue. In responding he runs the risk of turning it into more than it actually is, so I think it was a smart choice to let it go by with little response.
What is the tradition role of the media in our society?
Historically, there are rules and expectations that guide our understanding of the media's role in democracy. We expect them to be operating on behalf of the public. They are the people who we expect to keep things in check, to be the watchdog.
What role are they playing today?
We see that media and journalists now have an agenda-setting function. They tell us what is important and what is worth paying attention to, and that creates a problem. They also tend to serve a gate-keeping function, keeping things out of the news that they deem unimportant or uninteresting. We expect that if it is in the paper or on the news it must be true. "I saw it on the news!"
What kind of damage can false or poorly researched reports do?
News spreads like wildfire. People talk and get it wrong and continually perpetuate the false story. When the news gets things wrong, it is unacceptable to not have done enough background checking in the first place. Why would you report something unless you know with certainty it is true? The message has been sent, the perceptions made, and we all know how hard it is to reverse first impressions. Perceptions and attitudes are powerful because they ultimately influence action. Not to mention, what is the likelihood that the people who saw it the first time will even see the correction or clarification?
Amidst all this confusion, what can we do to check our knowledge?
It is another testament to why we can't rely on one source for our news. CNN took it upon themselves to do a story about the falsity of the FOX story, but they also made mistakes. Reporters should know that we live in a world where purposeful disinformation exists. Because they are human and can get things wrong. We must seek out information for ourselves, and demand better of our journalists. They must strive to get it right the first time.
- Adam J. Stanley '08, Student Reporter