United States Project

How neglected archives lead to propaganda

July 23, 2018
Via Pixabay

KPIX, a CBS affiliate in San Francisco, began a segment from last August with footage shot from a helicopter of protesters outside of a West Oakland home. Homeland Security agents had just entered the residence, on what protesters clearly suspect to be an immigration charge. On the sidewalk, someone had scrawled “WE ♡ OUR NEIGHBORS” in chalk.

The segment, which lasts less than three minutes, suggests that the protesters were wrong. The anchor says that while area residents “thought it was an immigration raid,” the Oakland police “did confirm this was all a criminal search warrant in connection with human trafficking of juveniles.” The headline on the station’s website reiterates this: “ICE Investigators Serve Human Trafficking Warrant In West Oakland Neighborhood.” At the segment’s conclusion, Neda Iranpour mentions one protester’s skepticism about official statements from the Oakland PD and ICE. “We told [a neighbor] they were wanted for human trafficking of juveniles,” reports Iranpour, “and he said he doesn’t believe the authorities.”

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But the protesters actually proved to be correct. The East Bay Express reported a month later that Oakland police chief Anne Kirkpatrick had made false statements about the raid. The operation was not part of a “human trafficking” investigation; in fact, the lone person charged was “facing immigration charges and could be deported.” Three months later, KPIX ran a follow-up story, but it was focused on accusations by an Oakland councilwoman that the mayor was delaying a hearing about the raid, not a specific update to their original story. (KPIX did not respond to requests for an interview.)

Nearly a year later, a flurry of posts linking to the original KPIX segment appeared on right-wing websites. The Federalist headlined their post “WATCH: Neighbors Protest ICE As It Breaks Up Child Sex Trafficking Ring,” while National Review tweaked theirs to “Watch: Protesters Blast ICE as Agents Act on Federal Child Trafficking Warrant.” The Daily Wire and InfoWars ran similar posts. Donald Trump, Jr. and Katrina Pierson, senior advisor for President Trump, shared The Federalist post on social media; on July 8, President Trump retweeted Pierson’s tweet to his 53.2 million followers.

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None of the sites or accounts referenced above mentioned the subsequent admission of false statements about the raid’s goal. Meanwhile, InfoWars, the National Review, and The Federalist did not respond to requests for comment, but they have since issued updates or corrections at the end of the posts, which remain intact.

Their posts weren’t “fake news” created from thin air. KGO, an affiliate of ABC, aired a similar story on the same day. KPIX did what it was supposed to do—broadcast breaking news with the best information available.

But because of the disconnect between broadcast media and the internet, the trapped-in-time segment didn’t tell the whole story. The original KPIX segment, widely shared after it first aired, is in tune with a number of familiar partisan allegations: the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” approach to border-crossings, widespread protests against ICE, and stereotypes of left-wing protesters. It was splintered off and recontextualized by right-wing media long after it had aired.


CREATING DETAILED STORIES from the splinters of larger narratives is at the core of news gathering. Journalists are charged with determining the scope of stories—where they begin and end, how broad or narrow a story’s focus should be. That challenge is now complicated by digital duplication, infinite archives, and instantaneous access to them.

“Internet archives of news stories definitely exacerbate problems with secondary reporting,” writes Melissa Zimdars, a critical media studies scholar at Merrimack College, in an email. Zimdars writes that some journalists “assume truth within a story and use that as the basis for their story without doing additional work. This leads to inaccurately or imprecisely copying, reproducing, and/or relaying information that may already be based on questionable or unreliable sources.”

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Zimdars calls this dynamic “informational infidelity.” In Flow, a monthly online media studies journal run by graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin, Zimdars points out that many newsrooms build stories on foundations laid via newswire copy. Now, speed threatens to supplant integrity: As bloggers and writers are pressured to pump out stories based on their virality and sensationalism.

If we believed that archive was going to be used by historians and scholars and journalists in the future, we’d understand that we have an obligation to fix [stories], and not have them sit out there, as fresh as can be, for months and years to come. But we don’t.

Complicating things further, the inherent nature of broadcast news places it at odds with the internet. The former is ephemeral; the latter is infinite.

“We’re in this weird context where we cannot assume something is ‘permanent’ yet so much content lingers,” Zimdars tells CJR in an email, citing dead links as an example. “And the longer it lingers, the more it’s inherently removed from its original context and other news reports that build on, clarify, and correct information over time.”

Some think that online outlets should do a better job of updating their archives as time goes on, and stories change.

“[KPIX has] left a lasting impression,” says Ed Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. Referring specifically to the KPIX story, Wasserman says, “That was a rather dramatic inaccuracy, and they were instruments of that. They needed to circle back and say, ‘Remember when we told you? Well, it was wrong.’”

Although updates to older stories occasionally occur in the world broadcast news, Wasserman notes, that’s usually under the threat of a lawsuit. Before it could be archived for easy access, broadcast news passed before its audience and then more or less perished. Sure, archives were accessible, but they were a chore to get to. (In the mid-’00s, I worked at a company called Video Monitoring Services, whose business model was selling “research copies” of TV/radio segments; predictably, they have gone out of business.) Now, nearly every news segment that’s been produced in the past decade is merely a few keystrokes away.

“We believe we are producing for contemporaneous consumption, but the reality is that we are building an imperishable archive, and we’re doing that on a daily basis,” Wasserman says. “If we believed that archive was going to be used by historians and scholars and journalists in the future, we’d understand that we have an obligation to fix [stories], and not have them sit out there, as fresh as can be, for months and years to come. But we don’t.” So long as broadcast archives sit there without update, splintered into pieces of the grander narrative, they’ll be ripe for misuse—either by neglectful journalists or by producers of propaganda.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to KGO as an affiliate of CBS, rather than ABC.

Rick Paulas is a writer from Chicago, now based in Oakland, whose work can be found at rickpaulas.com.