Bian: In Covington Catholic scandal, it’s acceptable to acknowledge mistakes on many sides

Andrea Bian, Assistant Opinion Editor

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We’ve all seen it by now — the image seared into our minds. A teenage boy wearing a Make America Great Again hat smirks in front of a Native American elder as he chants and plays a drum at the Lincoln Memorial. In the background, other hat-wearing teenagers look on, grinning and yelling back.

The Covington Catholic High School scandal has made the rounds on the news and social media. The knee-jerk reaction among reporters and social media users alike when the initial video first surfaced was to denounce the students, specifically the boy, Nicholas Sandmann, who was central in taunting the Native American elder, Nathan Phillips. The entire situation seemed like straightforward media fodder: white males, unaware of their privilege, blatantly disrespecting people of color.

In a matter of hours, new, longer videos surfaced introducing new aspects of the incident. A group also at the Lincoln Memorial, identified as the Black Hebrew Israelites, were captured on video calling the students homophobic slurs and other insults, suggesting the students were provoked into doing their own “school chants.” Other videos appeared to show Phillips approaching the students first.

With added context to the incident, many media organizations and public figures walked back their initial coverage of Sandmann and Covington Catholic. Sandmann appeared on the “Today” show in a lengthy interview defending his actions.

This article isn’t going to defend the Covington Catholic students. Despite Sandmann’s claim that he was trying to defuse the situation, nothing about the way he looked at Phillips suggests that was his intention. In addition, his classmates’ incessant yelling and use of the Tomahawk chop (as seen in the videos) are indefensible. No matter who was provoked first, it’s difficult to justify the proven actions of the students, which escalated the situation rather than defused it. When asked on “Today” if he was apologetic, Sandmann said he couldn’t apologize for his actions.

Even though the students behaved rudely, the adults involved aren’t entirely off the hook, either. The slurs used by the Black Hebrew Israelites were also way out of line. And Phillips, according to video, did indeed approach the students first, despite his telling The Washington Post that Sandmann “blocked my way.”

But what bothers me most about the incident is not that all parties made mistakes. What bothers me most is the way the media covered those mistakes.

The imperfection of one party does not exonerate the actions of the other parties. Before additional context was revealed, the media jumped to attack Sandmann and his classmates. After more extensive evidence surfaced, those same media organizations rapidly walked back their criticism as quickly as it appeared. With the revelation of the Black Hebrew Israelites’ and Phillips’ actions, Sandmann and the students seemed to be cleared of wrongdoing. Sandmann scored an interview on the “Today” show, which barely challenged his motives and actions — or at the very least weakly questioned whether his actions were wrong.

I’m a journalism student. In journalism we frequently discuss false equivalency, or “bothsidesism” — the urge of some media organizations to portray a situation or debate as balanced between two opposing sides, when there may be more factual evidence that supports one side. In their haste to avoid this false equivalency, organizations jump to defend one side, and if they detect a flaw in that side, they’ll jump to defend the other.

I think false equivalency happens in journalism and that it’s negative. But the reality is that multiple people and multiple sides can make mistakes.

In this particular situation, neither party was perfect. To acknowledge that isn’t to do the other side an injustice. It’s to take a step towards understanding and progress, which we need much more than division and hate.

Andrea Bian is a Medill first-year. She can be contacted at andreabian2022@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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