Journalism Ethics 101: What not to do when you call a band a white power group
Yesterday, Lonnie Nasatir, Director of the Anti-Defamation League's Upper Midwest Region, wrote this opinion piece for CNN.com about white power music. The article was a response to Sunday’s shooting at a Wisconsin Sikh temple which many have labeled a hate crime. (The shooter Wade Page was in two white supremacist bands.)
In the article, Nasatir names several white power bands. One of the groups he mentions is Hatebreed. The only problem is Hatebreed is not a white power band. The response to the article was instantaneous and CNN was berated with comments from Hatebreed fans demanding a retraction. On Hatebreed’s Twitter, the band tweeted: "Writers like Lonnie Nasatir are the reason why the American media is looked at as a complete joke.” Around 4:30 p.m. yesterday, CNN.com removed Hatebreed from the article and issued a retraction. The Anti-Defamation League also issued an apology on their Facebook.
Most people have already moved past this story, but others—myself included—are still trying to comprehend how this egregious mistake even happened. Labeling a band as a white power group is a pretty big fuck-up. But what I find even more astounding is the total lack of thoughtfulness and accountability surrounding the entire story.
I don’t know much about Hatebreed, but I do know a bit about journalism ethics. (It was one of my favorite classes in college.) Yes, the article was an opinion piece written by someone who isn’t affiliated with CNN. (By the way, shame on you Lonnie Nasatir. You work for an organization whose mission is “to secure justice and fair treatment to all" yet you exercised neither in your article. I know journalism isn’t your chosen profession so here’s a tip: When you write an article about any topic—especially one as controversial as white power music—you’ll want to do some research. And that doesn’t include typing the words “hate bands” into your Google search bar and picking whatever band pops up first as and example.)
Regardless of who wrote the piece, once CNN.com decided to post it on their website, that article becomes theirs. Not only do they own it, but they’re responsible for it. One of CNN’s responsibilities as “the most trusted name in news” means making sure an article they decide to publish isn’t libelous. (P.S. CNN: You might want to come up with a new tagline. Might I suggest: “The most trusted name in news…some of the time.)
Although CNN eventually issued a retraction, before they did that, the website simply removed Hatebreed from the article. I’m guessing they assumed they could appease the angry mob and avoid the embarrassment of issuing a retraction. This little maneuver would never have worked if the article had ran in a newspaper or magazine. The internet allows us to share news instantly, and it also allows us to correct said news instantly, but that doesn’t mean we always should. CNN may have removed Hatebreed’s name from the article once the backlash began, but it didn’t matter. The damage was already done. That’s the thing about the internet: when a website gets something wrong, the response is just as instantaneous.
I had a journalism professor who used to say, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” It always made me laugh, but my professor’s point was this: Check everything you write. Then double-check it. At the end of the day, no one (besides your mother) will remember the wonderful article you wrote about the local middle school’s science fair, but you can bet everyone will remember the time you wrongly accused a fifth grader of creating bombs in his basement when he was just working on his awesome volcano project. Since the shooting, there have been dozens of articles about the prevalence of hate music. Maybe CNN thought they had to get in on the trend sooner than later. Although it may seem otherwise in this digital age, being first in the news game doesn’t matter; being right is what counts. CNN and Lonnie Nasatir would do well to remember that.
Brittany Moseley is the associate editor of Alternative Press.