darts and laurels

Reporters rummage through Malaysia Airlines Flight 17

Poor judgment used when covering the tragedy in Ukraine, and the rest of our darts and laurels
September 2, 2014

DART to the ghoulish journalists who rummaged through the scattered belongings of people killed when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot out of the sky over eastern Ukraine, while investigators fretted that the site was being contaminated.

That includes Sky News reporter Colin Brazier, who was reporting live from the site on July 20 when he picked up a toothbrush, a set of keys, and a child’s bottle from an open piece of luggage. Brazier noted, “We shouldn’t really be doing this, I suppose,” but his report still set off a storm of protest on social media that prompted Sky News to apologize for the incident that same day. Brazier himself apologized in a column in The Guardian a few days later, explaining that he wasn’t thinking clearly amid the chaos at the crash site, and adding that other journalists were handling belongings, too.

So they were. Dutch reporter Caroline Van Den Heuvel, of the current-affairs show EenVandaag on Netherland1, read from a journal found among personal belongings at the site, in a live broadcast on July 21. Once again, viewers took their protests to social-media platforms, calling the reporter’s actions “disrespectful” and “disgusting,” forcing the show to eventually apologize. 

That same day, people took to Twitter to criticize Australian ABC correspondent Phil Williams for handling a scarf at the site. Williams never apologized, and he defended his actions by claiming the site was already contaminated, as items had been piled by the roadside.

DART to The Associated Press and the New York Daily News for factchecking a claim that turned out to be a rather obvious hoax—and then still publishing it. On July 22, as New York City media buzzed about who had replaced the US flags atop the Brooklyn Bridge with two white flags, the pranksters behind the Twitter parody account Bike Lobby—which was created more than a year ago in response to an anti-bike rant in The Wall Street Journal—tweeted that it had raised the flags to signal that it was surrendering the bridge’s bike path to pedestrians. The AP and the Daily News contacted Bike Lobby through tweets and emails for a statement but somehow missed the rather obvious evidence that they were dealing with parodists. In fairness, Bike Lobby doesn’t actually admit to being a parody account until the second line of its Twitter bio. A bit of advice that is as applicable to journalists as it is to cyclists: Speed kills.

LAUREL to Gene Weingarten, a columnist for The Washington Post, for adding an important perspective to the dismayingly familiar round of tut-tutting and schadenfreude that erupted in July when BuzzFeed fired its politics editor, Benny Johnson, for plagiarizing. Weingarten declared the scandal “a silly one,” maintaining that the whole affair should be dismissed with a shrug because Johnson had mainly copied simple Yahoo answers, never original thoughts or content of any significance. By calling what Johnson did plagiarism, he suggested, we are diminishing the crime of real plagiarism. 

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Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS.