Getting It Wrong

Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, W. Joseph Campbell, University of California Press.

Legend has it that panic and mass hysteria followed in the wake of the radio dramatization of War of the Worlds, which was broadcast live on the CBS network on October 30, 1938. “No doubt some Americans were unnerved and frightened by the program, but it was an untenable leap for newspapers to extrapolate mass panic and hysteria from a comparatively small number of anecdotal reports,” writes W. Joseph Campbell in “Getting It Wrong,” which examines ten media-driven myths, including the Bay of Pigs-New York Times suppression myth, the supposed heroic exploits of Army private Jessica Lynch in Iraq, and the highly exaggerated reports of looting and violence in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

At first glance, one might think that the objective of the book is to assail the media for past failures, but its true purpose is to set the record straight—and explain the importance of doing so. After establishing the definition of a media-driven myth (well-known stories about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, on close inspection, prove to be apocryphal or wildly exaggerated), Campbell goes on to explore how media-driven myths are propagated, why they are so enduring, and their immediate and long-term impact on our democracy.

As for preventing media-driven myths from taking hold, the author has many suggestions, but there are no easy answers. “Hurried and sloppy reporting plays a major role in their creation, as does the quest for scapegoats. But the core problem is that all too often, the news media seem complexity-averse and exceedingly eager to simplify and synthesize,” offers Campbell, a professor in the School of Communication at American University. “Myth-debunking Web sites and the digitization of source material from the past are helpful, but always a difficult task to un-ring the bell, so to speak. As a result, its a certainty that new media-driven myths will assert themselves. And whether they tell of great deeds by journalists, or of their woeful failings,” concludes Campbell, “they will all [be] rich candidates for debunking.”

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