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American Magazine


Media Myths

By Mike Unger

Detail from the cover of Getting It Wrong.

W. Joseph Campbell's 2010 book, "Getting It Wrong"

Sometimes journalists don’t get it right. 

That may sound like an odd position for a journalism professor to take, but the School of Communication’s Joseph Campbell makes a compelling case in Getting It Wrong that media has exaggerated or botched at least 10 major stories.

Here are a few you think you knew, and why you’re wrong.

MYTH  - Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment in February 1968 that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam caused public opinion to swing against the war. At the White House, President Lyndon Johnson watched the Cronkite program and declared, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”

DEBUNKED -  Public opinion began turning against the Vietnam War months before Cronkite’s program. Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment was unremarkable—other news outlets had previously offered similar or harsher analyses. Johnson did not even see the Cronkite program when it aired. He was at the time attending a birthday party in Austin, Texas.

Crack babies
MYTH -  Children born to women who smoked crack cocaine during their pregnancies were, according to numerous news reports, doomed to lives of endless dependency and suffering.

DEBUNKED - The much-feared social disaster never materialized. News accounts of helpless “crack babies” were based more on anecdotes than solid, sustained research. There is, moreover, no medically recognized “crack baby” syndrome.

Hurricane Katrina
MYTH -  News coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans in 2005 was superlative and represented a memorable occasion of the media’s exposing government incompetence.

DEBUNKED - Katrina’s aftermath was no high, heroic moment in American journalism. The news coverage in important ways was flawed and wildly exaggerated. Numerous accounts that described apocalyptic horror unleashed by the hurricane proved false. On crucial details, journalists got it wrong, defaming a battered city and impugning its residents at a time of deep despair.