Sloppy journalism leaves political mess behind

From January 18 to January 21, Hu Jintao, the President of the People’s Republic of China, made a state visit to the US based on an invitation from US President Barack Obama. How did the US media cover this state visit?

One example of questionable news reporting was the January 20 New York Times article about a “warning” US President Obama allegedly made to President Hu at a private dinner at the White House on Tuesday night, January 19.

According to the article, President Obama warned China that the US would “re-deploy its forces in Asia to protect itself” if Beijing did not step up pressure on North Korea. The report of this alleged warning came from an unnamed government source, from “a senior administration official.”

But this story was not part of any official statement made or press conference held during President Hu’s visit.

Instead it was an example of the kind of press activity that drew serious criticism in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq.

Then it was revealed that the pretext for the invasion was set by fictitious news reports in mainstream US media in conjunction with US government officials making misleading or even false statements to reporters.

Publishing reports from unnamed public officials was one of the forms this flawed reporting took.

One well-known example of the problem was the harm done by journalists who spread fraudulent claims about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Vague references to administration officials, rather than specific quotes from named sources, made it possible to spread the false narrative.

The absence of an accountable official in the articles made it possible for reporters to give credence to inaccurate data and to a flawed understanding of the situation.

For example, stories in the New York Times claimed that Iraq was attempting to acquire aluminium tubes to develop its nuclear weapons program. There were US intelligence officials, however, who argued these aluminium tubes had no relation to any nuclear program.

In another example, the Ombudsman of the Washington Post described how readers complained about a report that Al Qaeda received a deadly nerve gas from Iraq.

Readers had complained that this report was based on too little actual factual information and so should not have been published until there was more intelligence to confirm the information.

Recognizing the problem with such misleading and inaccurate journalistic practices, media professionals and academic researchers like W. Lance Bennett of the University of Washington have proposed the need for the US media to employ more responsible practices in its reporting.

It is difficult to verify whether President Obama had the conversation with President Hu reported in the New York Times.

Since the source is given as an unnamed “senior administration official,” other journalists cannot ask this administration official to verify the report. Nor does the New York Times story explain what threat North Korea could actually represent for the US, or what was meant by the warning that the US would re-deploy its forces in Asia.

Such an ambiguous set of claims would need to be clarified before being spread widely as fact. The way the New York Times reported this story, however, did not provide means to verify or clarify the claims. The New York Times story was then spread by other media outlets both within the US and internationally.

Are we seeing once again the kind of irresponsible reporting that created and spread the false narrative about Iraq and provided the pretext for a military assault on that nation?

Reports that spread vague and unsubstantiated rumours  are not good journalism.

It is part of creating a politicalized and often outright false narrative to serve political and illegitimate purposes. Shouldn’t media challenge such reports, not spread them?

Source: Global Times

[08:49 February 01 2011]


By Ronda Hauben

The author is an award-winning US based journalist covering the United Nations. She is also co-author of the book Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet.

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