MODERN MEDIA WITCH HUNTS

Oil painting depicting witch hunts in medieval times. By John Pettie

 

By Robert Williamson

 

Facing death by hanging, he cried, “How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul, leave me my name!”

John Proctor, after suffering through a court of public opinion to determine whether or not he conducted ‘witchcraft’, refused the label bestowed upon him. The town of Salem saw his refusal to admit to their predetermined, unproven ‘facts’ as ample reason to take a man’s life. Arthur Miller’s 1953 classic, The Crucible, doesn’t leave any room for happy endings.

For good reason though, as it’s a fictionalized account of one of the most storied periods of mass hysteria in the modern world. A bizarre moment in history when an entire community of people refused to accept evidence in order to support their own preconceived assumptions. A point in time where heresay took precedence, and a unified voice of doubt was determined to be a voice of reason overlooked any due process to streamline a verdict already written.

The Salem witch trials, which took place over a year between 1692 and 1693, are studied and storied for a reason. The unfounded beliefs of a community resulted in the deaths of more than 20 innocent people, an almost unbelievable chapter in social history.

Although we like to think they were the barbaric actions of times passed, the ‘herd mentality’ that took precedence in Salem in the 17th century, still crops up today. Both mainstream and social media have a tendency to pick up on what they can believe to be ‘clues’ or ‘suspicious behaviour.’ The thought snowballs and overnight sneaking suspicions can become hard evidence in the court of public opinion.

These mistakes aren’t things of the past, they still occur on a regular occasion on both social and mainstream media. News organizations need to watch their step in trying to be first out the door. Misinformation spreads just as quickly as the truth.

In January, a gunman walked into the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City during prayer and opened fire on a group of unsuspecting, innocent muslims. The young men who committed these heinous crimes acted alone.

It was reported that the Quebec Police Force had apprehended two suspects in relation to the shooting. They were being held overnight by police while the media was itching for any source of information on the two people. That morning, the Associated Press caught wind of the two young men’s names.

“Breaking: Court clerk confirms the names of suspects in Canadian mosque attack as Alexandre Bissonnette and Mohamed el Khadir,” their tweet read at 8:31 a.m. the morning after the shooting.

In the rush to be first, without doing any sort of fact checking, the Associated Press reported a lie. Alexandre Bissonette was being held as a suspect in the case. Mohammed Belkhadir (corrected from Mohamed el Khadir) had been wrongly accused and was now being held as a witness.

It wasn’t much, but the information started to spiral out of control. Twitter blew up with the news that a white Quebecer and a muslim man had shot up the mosque together. This wild news could have had some serious repercussions for Belkhadir had the Quebec Police Force not corrected the Associated Press for them.

Quebec Police tweeted they were only holding one suspect at 12:06 p.m., nearly four hours after the Associated Press’ initial report.

The media was vigilant in clearing up Belkhadir’s name, ensuring that past those four hours of confusion, the young muslim man’s name was clear of any accusations related to the shooting.

Though sometimes the media isn’t so quick to correct themselves.

“There was a horrible case out in Woodstock, Ontario [more than] a couple of years ago,” recounts John Lancaster, an investigative jorunalist for the CBC. “I’ll never forget it.”

On April 8, 2009, in Woodstock,, eight-year-old Tori Stafford was abducted, abused and murdered.

Tara McDonald, Stafford’s mother, invited a reporter into her house a short time after the abduction, while she was still considered missing. Unbeknownst to the reporter, McDonald and Stafford had moved into the house only a few days prior to the abduction, so the packed boxes and mattresses laying on the ground seemed to point to something fishy.

“He went on the air that night,” says Lancaster. “Saying, ‘this is the horrible conditions this little girl is subjected to by her parents.’”

That was all the public needed to convince them that McDonald had committed a horrible crime. McDonald, along with Tori’s father Rodney Stafford, were convicted online and by the media as the mastermind’s behind their daughter’s disappearance.

Swarms of reporters would camp outside of their house, day and night, keeping a close watch for any misstep or any indication to reaffirm their suspicions.

“Other reporters also started doing stories that suggested that maybe these parents weren’t telling the truth,” says Lancaster.

The girl’s parents were nothing but cooperative. While they waited with bated breath, the police searched for any sign of their little girl. Both the public and media hounded them with question after question. For one of the most devastating months of their lives, McDonald and Rodney Stafford were pinned as the murderer’s of their own child. It was a modern day witch hunt.

“It got so bad that the Ontario Provincial Police, who had been called in to assist the local police service to investigate,” Lancaster recalls. “They started sending their own plainclothes officer, a guy in a jeans and shirt or whatever, and he would stand there with the reporters with a little video camera recording every single word these parents said.”

“Even the police were almost like ‘it’s just a matter of time until we catch you for this.’”

It got so bad, that after a month to the day of her daughter’s abduction, McDonald had to confront media at keeping their attention towards finding her daughter rather than trying to pin the crime on her. Two days later, Terri-Lynne McClintic walked into a police station and confessed that she and a friend, later identified as Michael Rafferty, were responsible for the abduction and subsequent murder of Stafford.

Though the ensuing trial revealed some of McDonald’s shortcomings as a parent (she had been addicted to OxyContin), she was far from the heartless murderer both the public and media had painted her as for over a month.

Lancaster is thankful he never joined the pile on, “It made me realize, you can never know how someone is feeling or how they react until you’ve been in their situation,” he says. “So there’s no normal response if you’re a victim of something or if you’ve seen something. Sometimes we expect people to act in a certain way, but you can never expect a person to act in a certain way.”

This wasn’t an isolated incident. There have been countless cases of both the media and the public fuelling witch hunts in modern society. Amanda Knox fell victim to it in 2007. Rather than launch a competent and full investigation into the murder of her roommate in Perugia, Italy, the local authorities made quick assumptions with little detective work and convicted Knox of the murder. The media jumped on it like a hungry pack of dogs, she was persecuted by the press and tried by the public. Through the appeal process, it was revealed that none of the police work was credible. Knox had suffered an unfair and unjust trial, and was released in 2011.

How do these things still happen? In an industry where it’s preached that a journalist’s integrity is all they have, how do news organizations continue to chase wild leads and unfounded claims and publish them as fact?

“It seems that news organizations that attempt to invest in digital ops usually do that at the expense of their staff, bringing in digital has resulted in some efficiencies but has also resulted, in my opinion, a diminishing of standards,” says Jeffrey Dvorkin, a professor of journalism at the University of Toronto.

Dvorkin is a highly established journalist himself, with a C.V. that includes vice president of News and Information for National Public Radio south of the border and former chief journalist for CBC Radio in Canada.

“As reporters are expected to do more in shorter periods of time, there are fewer editors or fewer producers in broadcasting, and that has had a deleterious effect in my opinion.”

The need to be first with the news, to be the organization that ‘breaks’ the story first is an extremely dangerous mindset that seems to have overtaken the need to be right.

Middsummer Eve Bonfire on Skagen Beach. 1906. By P.S. Kroyer

Lancaster believes the shift in attitude has been detrimental to the integrity of the industry, “I always say journalists don’t do themselves any favours when they rush to be first with a story,” he says. “With all the cuts in our industry, with fewer eyes double checking things, there is the chance for more mistakes. Especially in our breaking news cycle where everything has to be done yesterday.”

It’s a dangerous game to play in the industry – a single piece of false information can spark a driving suspicion amongt the general public that can lead to fatal consequences.

After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, a number of reports and news outlets tweeted out that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had named Sunil Tripathi, a young American student who was missing around the time of the bombing, as a primary suspect in the case. This launched a whirlwind of misinformation and witch hunting that carried over to Reddit, a website driven by user generated content claiming to be the ‘front page of the internet’. Users of the site created a subreddit devoted to hunting down Tripathi, from false information based on claims that he ‘looked like’ one of the men in photographs of the alleged suspects released by the FBI. The BBC reported Tripathi as the “standout suspect” on social media.

Not long after, the real culprits were revealed as brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Social media had been dead wrong. Tripathi had nothing to do with the bombing, though that didn’t stop the internet community from hunting down and accusing an innocent man of a heinous act.

Tripathi was found dead as a result of suicide only days after the bombing.

“I think when it comes to news organizations and reporters tweeting something, if you’ve tweeted something and it’s incorrect, it’s absolutely your obligation to not only delete that tweet but to follow up with a statement,” says Lancaster. “[Stating], that information was incorrect. Capital incorrect.”

Kevin Donovan, head of the Toronto Star’s investigative team, has been in the industry for over three decades now, and notes that there has been a shift in the way news organizations collect and present information.

“I would say that with the advent of the internet, there’s more opportunity to get things wrong because previously the majority of our information would come from direct face to face or telephone interviews with individuals and also documents that we would get,” says Donovan. “Now there is a great danger because there is so much information on the internet. It’s great that there’s all this information, but I’m always telling reporters to make sure that the person you’re talking to by email is actually that person and to make sure the document you’re looking at is a real document.”

In an industry so focused on the ‘now’, the facts can get clouded by the need to turn around stories in an hour or two after they land on the reporter’s desk.

Dvorkin believes this attitude to be detrimental to the quality of journalism as an industry.

“It has resulted in news organizations actually accepting the idea that there is ‘fake news’ when in fact they should be looking at themselves for supplying content that is less useful to their audiences as citizens rather just consumers.”

“Journalists do make mistakes, we’re human,” says Donovan. “The important thing is when mistakes like that are made that we correct them.”

It isn’t an industry without fault, but we have to do our best to ensure everything and anything being published is factual, and won’t lead to a witch hunt that ends being nothing more than intrusive and embarrassing to all involved.

“Shut up and wait until you get the facts,” says Lancaster.

As for the reporter who broke the story on Tori Stafford’s parents being unfit?

According to Lancaster, “He left the business, and now he works in media P.R.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *