The media holds a unique power in this nation that other institutions – and individuals, for that matter – strive to attain. That power is the public’s trust. When most people pick up a newspaper, turn on the 6 o’clock news, or click a news website’s post, they usually trust that what they are going to read is the truth. The check on this power is the fact that different news organizations exist and therefore compete for quicker, more accurate coverage. But as one of the only sources of information for the masses, the media is capable of shaping public opinion, and when they’re wrong, running a correction doesn’t always undo the damage.
This issue recently came to light after a student at USC was found dead of unknown causes in his apartment. According to reports from the USC Department of Public Safety, Kyaw was discovered in his room by his roommates on Sunday, October 27. Kyaw’s death was announced in an email from USC Marshall School of Business Dean James G. Ellis the following day. Several local news outlets, including NBC and CBS, picked up the story but the focus of their stories was not the tragedy of a life cut short too soon or about Kyaw’s personal accomplishments. Instead, Kyaw’s death was manipulated by these media outlets to indicate a so-called trend at USC.
The university recently made headlines after administrators placed sanctions on the Greek Row and banned weekday parties at fraternities, after a girl was seriously injured from falling of a table at a party at fraternity house Sigma Alpha Epsilon.
On Monday night, NBC updated their story on Kyaw’s death to say that the coroner cited the cause of death as acute alcohol toxicity. Hours later, the information was removed, and an editor’s note was placed at the end of the story online:
“A previous version of this article stated that the coroner said Kyaw’s cause of death was acute alcohol toxicity, but only the LAPD gave that as a preliminary cause of death. The coroner has not yet performed an autopsy.”
The story also includes this paragraph:
“The death comes in the wake of a university-issued ban on weekday fraternity parties following a series of alcohol-related injuries. Kyaw did not die at a fraternity party.”
The report then goes on to detail the events of the past several weeks involving alcohol-related incidents at USC. But why mention sanctions on Greek Row in the story at all, if the explanation is followed by a sentence stating that Kyaw was not involved in Greek life? The story, after all, seems to be about Kyaw, not partying at USC.
The entire premise of the story is based on the unconfirmed assumption that Kyaw’s death was alcohol related. The editors even included a correction stating that the coroner had not performed an autopsy, and a CBS story on the incident stated that toxicology tests could take months to return results, according to the coroner’s office. The Daily Trojan also reported that the coroner could not confirm allegations of an alcohol-related death.
This is a case of irresponsible reporting, not only factually, but also ethically. The idea of even having to run a correction for something as vital to a story as a cause of death – an extremely sensitive topic – should be the first indicator of incompetence. But the implications of this mistake run much deeper.
Excessive drinking on campus is clearly a serious issue at USC, something acknowledged by administrators and student representatives of Greek life and student government. The recent sanctions have led to town hall meetings, which allow students to express their concerns to administrators, and for the most part, have fostered an open discussion about the subject among the USC community.
But now, because of reports like that of NBC, Kyaw’s death will forever be associated with the issue of partying.
A CBS report said that Kyaw’s friends told reporters that Kyaw was not known to be a heavy drinker. What if Kyaw’s toxicology reports come back as negative for alcohol? Kyaw’s death has already been cited as an example of drinking culture at USC and, because of NBC’s sloppy reporting, perhaps wrongfully so. But even if by some twist of fate NBC turns out to be correct, and Kyaw’s death is confirmed as alcohol related, their ethics are already out the window. I personally don’t trust a news organization so quick to tarnish the reputation of a recently deceased young adult without absolute certainty that their information is correct. The idea that Kyaw’s death may be related to a disturbing trend at USC might make for a better story, but that is by no means a reason to correlate the two completely separate issues.
This trend in digital journalism toward “publish now, check later” is troubling to say the least. The temptation to post a story that is first and the most shocking often seems to outweigh the need for accuracy, and to put it simply, that’s just not ok.
The issue is complex, but the solution is easy: check your facts, NBC.
You make excellent points. While the issue of journalistic integrity is certainly not limited to the digital realm, the ever-increasing news cycle has resulted in saddening scenarios like the one you describe. I also agree with your point about how the facts were displayed with regard to Kyaw. Though the media stopped short of editorializing, the way in which the facts were presented definitely gave the reader a perception of an overarching drinking narrative at USC – even when such a discussion may not be germane to the issue at hand (if you can’t confirm he died of alcohol poisoning, why tie the piece into alcohol issues). Nice work.
Our minds definitely have a tendency to bend information so that each new piece of data fits into our existing schemes. For the folks at NBC and CBS, I think they were especially vulnerable to this tendency due to their distance from the school. They knew about the ban on The Row and the story was constructed before Kyaw came into the picture.
It’s amazing how, in the midst of the digital age, writers and news outlets believe that they can “slip one past” an unsuspecting audience without noting an error, especially when the “one” is something as serious as the cause of death. In addition to selling the sexiest story possible – and the alcohol story always beats the brains angle (a true tragedy) – I think journalists are under increasing pressure to have the first mover advantage and be the first to report the story in it’s most exciting, and complete form. In this brave new journalistic world, accuracy takes a backseat. Nearly two months ago, Daily Trojan editor Daniel Rothberg criticized *Neon Tommy* for this very point – citing anonymous, unaffiliated sources rampantly and getting basic facts wrong during the SAE party incident (I’m sure there have been more than one). When *Neon Tommy* corrected their errors, they did so in the original texts and not as a footnote breaking journalistic conventions and leaving previous readers all the dumber and armed with incorrect information. Admitting one is wrong is an important thing, and in journalism it should be part of the profession’s DNA.