Expect excess in JFK, Jr. coverage

As the news media prepare to lead us through another marathon of mourning — this time over the apparent death of John F. Kennedy, Jr., his wife and his sister-in-law — we can expect two things: excessive and occasionally inaccurate coverage.
No matter how deep your affection for John, Jr., and the rest of the Kennedy family, no matter how profound your grief, you are sure to run out of tears before the media do. You will reach a point, if you haven’t already, where you would sooner watch Spanish soap operas than endure another teary tribute or slow-motion video montage.
One can already imagine the outpouring of emotion that will be exhibited on the networks’ morning news programs. Katie Couric’s anguished face, at first comforting, will become increasingly forced and annoying. And the hosts of “Good Morning America” and the other shows will engage in their own maudlin displays as each show tries to out-grieve its competition, turning this simple tragedy into a grotesque melodrama.
I hope this doesn’t happen, but our recent experiences with the death of Princess Diana, the Littleton shootings and other disasters suggests that we are in for another episode of journalistic overkill, complete with catchy titles and theme songs.
However minor these tragedies are in the larger scheme of things, they are irresistible for most news organizations. In the case of both Diana and Kennedy, you have two of the most famous and idolized people in the world, both of whom died premature and senseless deaths. Media and public interest is understandably high. Contributing to that is the fact that each died in a way that leaves unanswered questions, which increases our stamina for these stories.
But even stories with such built-in appeal can be overdone. The problem is that every news organization covers these stories: all the networks, all the news magazines, all the tabloids and all the talk shows. None can resist. And not one of them is going to voluntarily lay off just because other organizations are providing sufficient coverage.
Instead, each scrambles to provide the best coverage, the most dramatic coverage, the most poignant coverage and the most comprehensive coverage. With all of these media organizations driven by the same goal, excess is inevitable. We might wish for less coverage or less drama, but we would be kidding ourselves. It’s best just to accept the fact that coverage of the death of JFK, Jr., will be both overplayed and overwrought.
The other thing we should anticipate is a series of false reports and speculation about the crash.
The race to be first with the latest developments is a fundamental motivation among journalists. In many cases, it is a healthy preoccupation. But it can also induce some embarrassing breakdowns, particularly in today’s media environment where competition is unprecedentedly high.
Even in the pre-cable, pre-Internet news era, inaccurate and hastily assembled stories were not uncommon. In 1981, after John Hinkley, Jr., fired shots at President Reagan and his entourage, ABC’s Frank Reynolds announced on the air that press secretary James Brady had died from his wounds. Of course, Brady survived and went on to become a champion of gun control legislation.
More recently, however, with increased competition and increased technological capacity to immediately communicate the latest news, false reports have become more common.
Three years ago, not far from where JFK Jr.’s plane went down, TWA 800 exploded and crashed off the coast of Long Island. In the rush to pinpoint a cause, several news organizations published anonymous reports that the plane had been shot down by an errant missile. This theory was eventually discredited, but missile theories still persist.
Shortly after the TWA 800 crash, a bomb exploded in Centennial Park near the grounds of the 1996 Olympic Village. A few days later, the Atlanta Journal published a report in its Olympic Extra edition identifying Richard Jewell as the chief suspect in the bombing.
The story did not contain a single named source — not even an anonymous source. It simply said Jewell was the focus of the investigation and added a sidebar story describing Jewell as suffering from a “hero complex.”
Jewell was eventually exonerated, but not before he had to endure months of humiliation and scrutiny. And not before hundreds of other media organizations had repeated the same false accusation.
This is a unique feature of the modern media environment and one that we can expect to reappear in coverage of the JFK, Jr. investigation. As soon as one media organization publishes or broadcasts a new development, regardless of how flimsy the sourcing, other organizations will repeat it for their audiences, often without any follow-up investigation of their own.
The Atlanta Journal’s flawed story was read verbatim on the air by a CNN anchor less than an hour after it hit the streets, and its key allegations were repeated in virtually every major news outlet in the subsequent 24 hours. None had independent corroboration.
This same pattern had occurred many times before, most prominently during the O.J. Simpson trial where many early reports from unnamed sources turned out to be false, or only half true. This pattern has also occurred many times since, most notably during the Clinton-Lewinsky investigation when ABC News, the Dallas Morning News, the Wall Street Journal, Matt Drudge and many others were forced to correct errors that they pushed into print or on the air.
Unfortunately, too many editors are convinced that it’s better to risk being wrong than to be left behind.
So, as we begin what will be an unrelenting wave of coverage about the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr., we should know that errors will occur. Anonymous sources making definitive claims will be widely quoted, and stories with spectacular breakthroughs and predictions will make the front page, only to be rejected in later reports.
It is naive to think that these things will change anytime soon, particularly in a sensational story like this one. The best we can do is to understand the media’s motivations and to be smart about the stories we read and the sources we believe.
Erik Ugland’s column appears on alternate Mondays. He welcomes comments to [email protected]