Lessons from the Covington Catholic Flashpoint

My social media network includes people who fully supported the narrative voiced by Phillips and magnified by social media outrage, who now feel the shifting narrative proves how hard “the media” work to excuse the misbehavior of smirking, entitled, racist bullies. (But they might agree the Hebrew Israelites went too far.)

My social feed also includes people who were participating in the March for Life and insisted from the start that the first video didn’t tell the whole story; they now feel vindicated by the greater narrative. They feel the whole incident demonstrates how “the media” loves to sensationalize stories that make Catholics look bad. (But they might agree Phillips probably had good intentions.)

Members of both groups, and plenty of people in between, are united in blaming “the media.”

But it was mostly ordinary citizens who shared the clips, the captioned screencaps, and the memes.

“Did you watch the video?” was a question I saw in numerous social media threads. “Not just the clip, did you watch the whole video?”

“I don’t need to! I saw that smirks, and the tomahawk chops, and that’s enough.”

“Did you see these other videos,” went another line of inquiry. “And the pictures that show the Covington boys in other contexts, taunting and mobbing? Did you see their hats?”

“I don’t need to! I saw children who looked clueless and nervous, but never got violent.”

Oh, what a time to teach journalism.

I Failed the Covington Catholic Test: Next time there’s a viral story, I’ll wait for more facts to emerge. (The Atlantic) 
As I watched the longer videos, I began to see the smirking kid in a different light. It seemed to me that a wave of emotions rolled over his face as Phillips approached him: confusion, fear, resolve. He finally, I thought, settled on an expression designed to mimic respect while signaling to his friends that he had this under control. Observing it, I wondered what different reaction I could have reasonably hoped a high-school junior to have in such an unfamiliar and bewildering situation. I came up empty.

MAGA-hatted teens, a Native American and the peril of instant judgment (Chicago Tribune)
It’s not hard to believe that Phillips and Sandmann each acted in a way he thought was responsible and constructive. It was obviously a messy, confusing situation. | But a couple of clear lessons can be drawn. One is that it’s dangerous to reach instant judgments based on images that lack context. Sometimes, video footage is invaluable in determining the truth. At other times, it makes something complicated look simple. | Another is that many Americans see their political opponents as not only mistaken but malicious, and are prone to interpret anything the other side does as damning. It’s never been easy for people to see things from the point of view of those who disagree, and it’s even tougher in this hyperpolarized moment.

Three things student journalists can learn…(Dynamics of Writing)
The problem? A lot of stuff wasn’t accurate. For example, a publication quickly identified the wrong student as being involved in the face-to-face moment, only to have the Lexington Herald Leader issue a correction for the internet at large. In addition, an internet troll claiming to be Nick Sandmann’s mother made disparaging comments via the @gauchoguacamole Twitter account about Native Americans and smallpox, which led to more confusion. Twitter also suspended an account that purported to be from a California teacher, but was not, that made “deliberate attempts to manipulate the public conversation on Twitter by using misleading account information.” | Who was “legit” and who was trying to just mess with people? Nobody seemed to know, but a lot of it managed to leak into varying media outlets on the web. Even more, the Times and others tried to excuse themselves from their roles in this disaster-bacle by stating “a fuller and more complicated picture emerged.” (Saying something “emerged” is a nice way of absolving yourself of something and roughly translates to, “Hey, we didn’t find everything necessary to understand the whole story, but now that everything is a toxic waste dump out there, let’s slow up and take another shot at this.”)

Everyone is still wrong about the Covington kids (Washington Post)
The quarrel over the Covington teens is not only a story of social media hate-mobbing. It’s also a story of the groupthinking tendency to hop off a bandwagon as unthinkingly as we hop onto it. More important, it’s a story of our desire to make every cultural controversy fit into a framework that tells some distillable truth about the state of our country today. Any actual truth about the rifts running through America right now can’t be cleanly distilled. That’s a harder story to tell — which might be why so few are trying.


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