Grappling with the local angle in Covington Catholic’s backyard

Detail of the Roman Catholic St. Mary's Cathedral Basilica Of The Assumption in Covington, Kentucky. Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

The greater Cincinnati area, which encompasses parts of Northern Kentucky, including Covington, is reliably Republican and deeply Catholic. “How Catholic?” asked Cincinnati Magazine in 2016. So Catholic that the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, then the nation’s 38th most populous diocese, operated the sixth largest parochial school system in America. So Catholic that, in the 1960s, Cincinnati’s first McDonald’s franchise owner invented the Filet-O-Fish to correct for a decline in hamburger sales during Lent.

As images emerged last Saturday showing a confrontation between students from Covington Catholic High School and a group of Native American demonstrators on the National Mall, it is perhaps no surprise then that local news outlets around Cincinnati faced a deluge of pressure to give the students the benefit of the doubt. By day’s end, for example, phones at WCPO, an ABC-affiliate station, were ringing off the hook. “Some people just wanted to yell at us,” Felicia Jordan, an editor at WCPO, recounted on the station’s Hear Cincinnati podcast. Viewers accused the station’s initial coverage of being one-sided against the Covington Catholic boys and wondered why WCPO wasn’t airing new videos that seemed to show a more complicated series of events.

“I had to then attempt to explain to very angry people that we had yet to validate those videos,” Jordan said. “It seemed to escape many viewers that we can’t just go on the internet and pluck out whatever we would like to show.”

ICYMI: The stories left untold in America’s newsrooms

The Covington Catholic story moved fast online and in the national media. As the narrative warped and evolved, and as audiences retreated to well-worn corners of the American outrage cycle, outlets in Covington Catholic’s backyard wrestled with questions of how best to add value. In some respects, they succeeded laudably, identifying sources and adding context that could only be achieved with local insight. In others, however, outlets struggled to keep pace with the national narrative, while also negotiating the expectations of a fired-up local audience. Even as newsrooms labored to stick to the facts of the incident, bias sometimes crept in.

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Cincinnati is not quite a one-paper town. However, the Gannett-owned Cincinnati Enquirer, which also publishes The Kentucky Enquirer for audiences across the Ohio River, is the region’s uncontested newspaper of record. Other mainstream outlets include the four major network television affiliates, typical of a city of Cincinnati’s medium size, and a small handful of popular news-radio stations. In recent years, employees say, these outlets have frequently been lumped in with national media in accusations of bias and “fake news” by the local audience. “Given our primary demographic and the narrative of the mainstream media being against them, we’re often playing from behind with our audience,” Chip Mahaney, news director for WCPO, tells CJR.

Yet none of these outlets is known for its liberal slant, either. When the Enquirer endorsed Hillary Clinton’s bid for president in 2016, for example, it was the first time the paper had backed a Democrat in nearly a century. And since the Covington Catholic incident, the Enquirer has run three op-eds that are either overtly sympathetic to the students—or hostile to Nathan Phillips, the Native American elder at the head of the group that approached the students in DC—versus only one that questions the exclusive nature of Catholic schools and one that calls for empathy across the board.

Still, according to Beryl Love, executive editor of the Enquirer, evenhandedness is always the goal, and coverage of the Covington Catholic incident was no exception. “Covington Catholic faces backlash over video,” read the newspaper’s first headline on the incident. That early report was anodyne as could be, and purposefully avoided passing judgment. (The story has since been updated online.) “People were going to look to us in this situation,” Love says. “We needed to show that we were going to be there to help them sort out these very complicated events.” The Enquirer was the first outlet to produce a detailed and helpful reconstruction of the events on the mall. Along with the television stations, it also covered day-to-day developments pertinent to the story, including physical threats made against Covington Catholic and closures of both the school and the diocese.

Nevertheless, the Rorschach quality of the events imposed themselves quickly; readers lashed out, accusing the Enquirer of defending the boys or contributing to the ruination of their lives.

The issue has been oversimplified into a ‘one side versus the other’ kind of thing, and the analysis has stopped there.

Seeking out local voices to add new information and perspectives to the record would seem an obvious task for journalists in a story like this. But here it presented inherent challenges, not the least of which included a broad, if informal, communications lockdown across the Covington Catholic community. As outlets secured a few hard-won interviews, the prevalence of Covington-connected sources quickly made some local coverage seem one-sided in the students’ favor.

The Enquirer’s front page coverage last Tuesday, for instance, elevated to the headline an allegation of conspiracy. “‘Our boys were set up,’ chaperone says,” the headline read, leading with a claim that is later refuted by a representative of the Indigenous Peoples March—but not sooner than 400 words into the story. (The same headline ran on the front-pages of The Kentucky Enquirer and the Louisville Courier-Journal, which is also owned by Gannett.) Love says the decision to use the quote for the headline did not represent an endorsement of the chaperone’s views. Rather, he says it was intended to follow-up on an unknown in previous days’ coverage: the whereabouts of Covington chaperones.

WKRC, a CBS-affiliate and Cincinnati’s top-rated news station, also sought out chaperones for their side of the story. “Our boys were targeted,” one chaperone claimed in a taped interview, seated beside two others. “Our boys did nothing,” another said. The segment also featured a Greater Cincinnati Native American Coalition representative, Jheri Neri, who suggested that the boys might have walked away from the situation. However, Neri received just one-third of the time allotted to the chaperones, and his input was directly refuted by the anchor’s voice-over.

Online, the WKRC segment was embedded in an article which contains the complete written statement of Nick Sandmann—the Covington Catholic student who faced off with Phillips in DC—as well as lengthy quotes from two letters sent to the station by anonymous Covington Catholic students who claimed to have also been present on the mall. “As we are an all-male school that loves to get hyped up … we decided to do some cheers to pass time” wrote one. “It was not until later that we discovered they would incriminate us as a publicity stunt.” Addressing critics, the other wrote, “You do not know us. Enough of this persecution.” With over 1,800 words dedicated towards direct quotes of the students and hundreds more given to the chaperones, Neri—the lone voice not affiliated with Covington Catholic—is all but muted.

WKRC is owned by the famously conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group, which came under fire last year for pushing down mandatory segments and scripts to local stations. Sinclair excerpted WKRC’s chaperone interview for a national segment, but that excerpt did not include Neri’s comments. WKRC representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment from CJR.

WCPO put out a call for local sources to come forward. “We will dig into all sides of this issue and report them as fully as we can,” an editor posted on the station’s Facebook page. “Please reach out to myself or anyone in our newsroom if you are willing to talk and want to share your story or thoughts or emotions.” Asked if multiple interviews with Covington Catholic students and parents might give their side of the incident too large a platform or the opportunity to shape the narrative in their favor, Mahaney  acknowledges that he is primarily interested in hearing from Covington Catholic students and families, who are the local connection to this story. Any attempts to mislead would ultimately be the responsibility of the interviewees, Mahaney says. “If they’re saying what they’re saying, my assumption is it’s the truth.”

According to Jeffrey Layne Blevins, who heads the University of Cincinnati’s journalism department, inherent bias is little surprise in the area’s newsrooms. Cincinnati’s Hamilton County is 68 percent white and less than one percent Native American. Covington’s Kenton County is 91 percent white. As in many national outlets, Blevins says there does not always seem to be a great deal of awareness in the Cincinnati media environment when white people and families are platformed or treated with sympathy in a way that is different from how people in communities of color would be treated.

With respect to the Covington Catholic incident, it seems to Blevins that outlets’ need to deflect perceptions of being against the boys has resulted in an inadvertent self-censorship and, in turn, coverage giving outsized sway to Covington Catholic. Even though the initial incident proved to be more complicated, Blevins observes that there are still deeply troubling aspects to the videos that have not been deeply engaged in local outlets, such as the students’ tomahawk chops, their mocking chants, and their sexist jeers directed at a passing group of women.

“The issue has been oversimplified into a ‘one side versus the other’ kind of thing, and the analysis has stopped there,” Blevins says. This has come at the expense of more thoughtful reflections on perception and behavior, he says, in which there may not be “another side”—at least not one that can be personified by a member of a particular ethnic group. “Will we see the local media follow up on these parts of the story? Or will they drop the whole thing and move on?”

Love, at the Enquirer, hopes, too, that as the dust settles there will be an opportunity for local media to help Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky process the cultural moment. “We have to go beyond why this a viral story and get at issues of what we’re teaching our kids and how to talk to them about this experience. Not just Covington Catholic families, but for the whole area.”

On Sunday, the Enquirer published a lengthy piece that set out to explore how the culture at Covington Catholic might have contributed to the events on the Mall. What results is a survey of voices set against one another—some alumni of the school, some people of color who have played against the school in games—that ultimately demurs from addressing its premise head on. Some sources in the story chalked racist slurs and students in full-body black paint up to school spirit, for example; “others,” the story noted, “were made uncomfortable.” If there is a thesis, it would seem to be that one cannot know if aspects of Covington Catholic’s culture ought to be reevaluated; if that culture did or did not contribute to the events on the mall; or, if it did, whether there would even be anything wrong with that.

In the online version of the article, social media comments are embedded from Jack Posobeic, a known conspiracy theorist and alt-right troll, and Dana Loesch, of National Rifle Association and conservative talk radio fame, neither of whom is quoted in the piece. Love, who says he was not directly involved in the decision to embed the tweets, says they “offer some balance” to those critical of the school and its community, “and show how polarizing this situation is.” But such framing would also seem to undercut points Love made in a column, also published Sunday, that lamented the negative role social media and “fake news” played in shaping America’s understanding of the incident in DC in the first place.

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Andrew McCormick is an independent journalist and former CJR Delacorte Fellow. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, the South China Morning Post, and more. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewMcCormck.