California Forum

Reporters should take a lesson from bird watchers in era of viral news

Smartphone videos have become a check on abuses everywhere. They’ve unveiled cases of police brutality and provided evidence of times that black people and other marginalized groups were targeted by unconscionable tirades of hate speech and other racist behavior.

Naturally, we have come to trust tiny snippets of video as proof of what actually happened. But if photos don’t exactly lie, they can provide a slice of accuracy so narrow that it twists the truth.

That’s what we’ve been learning over the past couple of weeks from the viral speck of video that purported to show white teenagers wearing “Make America Great Again” hats crowding and taunting an American Indian elder. One teen, in particular, was described as smiling at him insolently while blocking his path.

It was all over social media. More problematically, mainstream national media bought into the instant outrage. Their stories referred to the kids “surrounding” the man as though he had been trapped by a gang. The word “smirk” got lots of play.

On the first day of outrage, I came across a comment suggesting that people find a different video of the same event because it gave more perspective. I went hunting. The second video showed Nathan Phillips, a Marine Corps veteran and member of the Omaha Nation, walking into the crowd of teens. They had not “encircled” him. He walked right up to one boy and stood there, drumming and chanting close to the boy’s face.


I couldn’t hear the supposed chants of “build the wall!” that had been reported, but the entire scene seemed full of bad behavior. Some of the boys were rudely doing stereotypical imitations of the drumming and chanting. The boy with whom Phillips faced off probably should have moved to the side. Or, Phillips could have moved around him, since there was plenty of room to do so.

Was the boy smirking, or was that an uncomfortable smile of social awkwardness? Maybe some of both? He certainly wasn’t taunting or making threatening moves. And what was Phillips’ intent? It’s not generally considered polite when a stranger walks within inches of us, stares us in the eye and bangs a drum inches from your face. I probably would have told him to get away from me.

I could find no angels in the two-hour video. But then, I wasn’t there. It’s difficult to know exactly how everyone was reacting in the context of what was actually happening.

This makes it even more troubling that major journalism outlets reported, during the first day, as though they did know what happened. CNN called the boys’ behavior a “shameful act” and outright accused them of shouting “build the wall!” Other reports were less fiery but still lacking neutrality.

Karin Klein.jpg
Karin Klein

New York Times columnist David Brooks reported that Phillips had told conflicting stories about why he walked into the group of boys. Brooks’ interpretation was that the boys had looked confused about what was going on or how they should react. He cautioned readers against judging reporters harshly for the early news reports because social media is a fast-moving “tail that wags the dog.”

I’m not buying the apologia. Yes, social media is a place where people judge first and read later – or seldom read at all. At super-heated moments, when an item’s going viral, trained journalists should provide a reality check. They should rely on facts, not assumptions and innuendo.

By the time the major news outlets got around to reporting the matter more thoroughly, the public had taken sides. Fuller stories that cast doubt on the initial accounts were attacked as “disgusting” and “awful.”

It might be archaic for journalists to stick to neutral language – “smiled” instead of the juicier “smirked” for example, or “taunting” or “closely surrounding” Phillips (who appeared to me to have plenty of room to move away) — in the absence of real evidence. But news reporters erode their own credibility when they become parrots for social media trends.

I’ve recently started learning more about bird-watching, and it occurs to me that more news outlets should consider what it teaches us about observation. Beginners are taught not to try to guess the identity of a less-familiar bird, or whether it’s an immature bird or a breeding bird. Rather, we’re supposed to observe closely, jotting every observable fact in a notebook, from the specific shape of the bill to the ratio of the wing length, to the tail length. Only then can we go to our guidebooks and make an accurate identification.

Closely observing and reporting facts, rather than our instant interpretations shaped by social media snippets, is a helpful procedure for finding truth. At a time when accusations fly so furiously around us, our society needs journalists to be the bird watchers.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.