Did anyone go to school for journalism ethics or crisis management? Over the past week, it seemed some of the people we trust the most haven’t had it and has led the Obama administration into one of its most embarrassing episodes.
In case you’re been on another planet for a week Shirley Sherrod, an official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was fired and then apologized to by her boss for a speech she made to a local NAACP branch Freedom Fund dinner back in March.
The comedy of errors that occurred over the last week has left a long time advocate for the poor who was telling a story about her own redemption in viewing race as collateral damage. Since this is a column about journalism, I won’t dig into many of the details but focus on the media and its responsibility in this fiasco.
Andrew Breitbart of BigGovernment.com (I thought I was going to stick to journalism, but I digress) posted a small portion of Sherrod’s speech where she talked about not giving a white farmer the “full force” of her services on his Web site and peddled it to the all too willing newsies at Fox. He appeared on “Hannity” with proof that the NAACP has a double standard about viewing race. This, of course, came on the heels of the NAACP putting the Tea Party movement on blast with a resolution asking the party to denounce alleged racist elements of its group.
The problem – the description of Sherrod’s comments in that March speech weren’t accurate. In fact, they weren’t even close. She was describing an incident that happened more than 24 years ago and her own awakening about racial issues. The white family she described in her speech came out in support of her and told how she helped save their farm.
Well, by that time, Sherrod was forced to resign, news commentators were pointing the finger at the NAACP and the NAACP itself blasted Sherrod for the supposed act of discrimination.
Journalism students – including the ones I teach at Purdue University – are told to always act independently. If someone tells you something, research that fact to make sure it’s accurate. If you see a portion of the video, find the entire speech, a transcript even. If those are not available, you go to the people who were there and you don’t report until you have the whole story.
Too often in today’s frenzied world of Internet journalism, most of these are ancient relics of truth telling. Most of us as journalists failed miserably and hopefully this story won’t be just a cautionary tale but lead to us communicators taking at least a small step back and asking the hard questions about what kind of information do we have, is it an accurate reflection of events, and can it hold up under scrutiny?
Breitbart has no interest in the truth. No mystery there. He is pushing for his cause. Fair enough. He’s hardly the only one, liberal or conservative. So why on God’s green earth did the agriculture department and White House all places jump to attention when this came out. For all the money the communication folks are paid there, they failed an important rule of crisis management – get all the facts about what’s going on and until then, keep your mouth shut. It’s the old adage: “It’s better to stay silence and have people think you are dumb than to open it and remove all doubt.”
There was some criticism of the NAACP “having this tape all along” and should have known its contents. This goes into the category of people who have no clue what they are talking about. This happened at a local branch event. Covering the NAACP as a reporter, I know that local branches operate as subsidiaries of the national organization. There would have been no need for the national office to know about comments made by a local speaker at a local NAACP event unless the local branch had made them aware of it. That video would have been in possession of the local branch, not national. That begs the question, just who in the local branch is Breitbart’s snitch? That person surely had to know this was taken completely out of context, unless it was found on YouTube or some other place.
The inability of the agriculture department, the NAACP, and the White House, to get the full story before reacting is an utter failure in crisis management communications and you would think heads would roll after this. The journalists’ willingness to jump on the bandwagon in the dawn of this story and not ask the hard questions about this video is an utter failure in journalism ethics of seeking the truth and reporting it. Granted, there has been some good journalism done after the fact and it will continue as more facts in this silliness come out. But this is an obvious lesson for us in that fast journalism doesn’t mean good journalism. Shirley Sherrod is proof of that.