The images of a smirking high school student standing in the face of a Native American veteran at the Lincoln Memorial have dominated the airwaves, print and social media from literally the moment it happened over the weekend, and it didn’t take long for the knee-jerk world we live in to respond accordingly.
The outrage that followed was impressive, even in this age of instant and widespread media coverage. The students from a Catholic boys’ high school in Kentucky, decked out in their MAGA hats, were quickly shouted down as entitled, racist tormentors on social media, pointed to as yet another example of Trump’s America at its worst. Calls went out for the students to be expelled or worse, as social justice warriors scrambled to find names and addresses of the kids involved and publish them online. The high school the students attend was “closed on Tuesday in order to ensure the safety of our students, faculty and staff,” according to a letter sent to parents of Covington High School.
Nathan Phillips, the Native American elder at the center of the controversy, spoke to reporters after the event and expressed his fear, both for his safety at the time and the future of our country.
And maybe that concern is warranted.
But as the story has slowly unfolded and more information has come to light, the same media outlets that were quick to vilify the group of high school students and canonize Phillips have been forced to walk back their narrative. Longer videos have surfaced that lay out a different context for Friday’s events — showing that Phillips walked into the group of teens while they were being antagonized and disparaged by a third group, of Black Hebrew Israelites.
Details are still sketchy, and we aren’t much closer to knowing the whole truth.
But one thing is clear: An incident that many initially believed was a sad commentary on the state of our nation has now become an object lesson in jumping to conclusions.
As is the case with any story that stirs emotion without the benefit of context, the results can be dangerous. And it’s easy to quickly stereotype the players in this game, when all you are shown is a group of white faces wearing bright red hats, squaring off with a Native American protestor.
The court of public opinion is a slippery slope, and initial judgments are rarely changed, especially in situations that are racially and politically charged and heavily covered. Apologies after the fact rarely carry any weight, because the damage has already been done. There are always multiple sides to a story. Maybe next time we can reserve judgment until all the facts are in. And as reporters, perhaps a little more due diligence should be called for in the future.