Quick Review: Getting It Wrong

The media seems to have a lot of influence as they both report on and shape perceptions of events. However, they can be wrong or overstate their importance. Journalism professor W. Joseph Campbell examines 10 media myths in the book Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism. Some thoughts on this interesting look at history and the media:

1. This is an interesting set of 10 events that includes William Randolph Hearst and his role in starting the 1898 war with Spain, Edward Murrow and challenging Joseph McCarthy, Walter Cronkite supposedly ending the hopes of Lyndon Johnson for winning in Vietnam, Woodward and Bernstein in their role in Watergate, and Hurricane Katrina. Many of the events are critical moments in history where a certain story has taken hold even though it is erroneous or misguided.

2. One issue that comes up in a number of cases is that of media figures overstating their influence. Take the incident between Murrow and Joseph McCarthy. While Murrow did preside over a scathing look at McCarthy, Campbell shows how the tide had already turned against McCarthy. Murrow was not the first to challenge the Wisconsin Senator and yet the story was built up over time to suggest that Murrow was the major force in bringing down McCarthy. Campbell suggests a lot of this happens because media figures build up the story over time to honor their own. Another case involves Walter Cronkite. For years after his 1968 editorializing against the Vietnam War, Cronkite said his statement didn’t matter much. However, a few years before his death, he changed his tune and started buying into the idea that he really had turned the tide.

3. Another issue that Campbell introduces is the inability of the media to reflect on its own problems, particularly when historical facts suggest the original story was wrong. Even with strong evidence in a number of these cases, media figures have continued to perpetuate narratives that highlight the role of their colleagues. When media outlets do reflect on mistakes or issues, they tend to bury these stories.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book. With doses of history plus some thinking about what influence the media actually has, Campbell provides a cautionary tale. As important gatekeepers of knowledge, the media has a critical role in society that includes keeping track and improving upon its own record.

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