A lesson in media literacy

What you see is what you see?

Like countless other people viewing social media last Saturday, I was caught up in a controversy that took place the previous day in Washington, D.C., following the March for Life. The incident, captured on video by many eyewitnesses near the Lincoln Memorial, first focused on a confrontation between an elderly Native American man beating on a drum and a Catholic high school student.

The video, along with comments by people posting them, gave the impression that the student, as well as many of his school mates, were intimidating and mocking the man, Nathan Phillips, who was in Washington for the Indigenous Peoples March. The video and the alleged incident were very upsetting. As the day wore on, and as more people viewed the video, anger and calls for action filled Twitter and Facebook posts.

Students in the video were identified as members of Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, who were in Washington for the March for Life. By Saturday afternoon, the Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School released a joint statement condemning the students’ actions.

As the protests grew, extended video clips began to appear, offering more context as to what took place on Friday. These additional clips caused people like Colin Mason, a filmmaker who studied an hour’s worth of video of the incident, to admit his initial response was mistaken.

In a blog post Jan. 20, Mason gave a minute-by-minute review of what took place, according to the extended video.

“My overall emotion about this video? I’m absolutely appalled at the way this has been treated in the media,” said Mason. “It’s part of standard journalistic due diligence to watch the long form of any video presented for context, and this was clearly not done.”

What was missing from the earlier video was the presence of a third group, the Hebrew Israelites, a group of black Americans who believe they are descendants of the ancient Israelites. Members of this group were seen and heard on the extended video spewing obscenities at the Covington students, the Native Americans and other passersby.

“What sits in the forefront of my mind in the unpleasant 50 minutes of that stream was Shar Yaqataz Banyamyan (one of the Hebrew Israelites) and his fellow agitators creating a consistent tone of racially tinged (and borderline threatening) tension around them,” said Mason.

“What truly bothers me is the fact that, as a private citizen, I was forced to watch 50 minutes of an ugly, messy, protest confrontation filled with racist and homophobic epithets at all,” Mason concluded in his post. “Isn’t this the job of journalists and people covering these things to do that?”

Matthew Livingstone, social media director for the Diocese of Green Bay, had the same reaction as Mason. In a Facebook post on Sunday, he encouraged people to be more media savvy.

“From 10 years of video production experience, I know how to position a camera, write a script and edit a video to make it show what I need it to show, tell the story I need to tell, and evoke various emotions I want an audience to experience,” he said. “If you see something in video, whatever the context or setting, please train yourself to be a patient, persistent, and educated media consumer.”

He offered a few suggestions.

  • “Ask tough questions about what you see, especially questions that challenge your own perspective.”
  • “Ask why what is being shown on screen has been chosen to show.”
  • “Ask what emotion or idea the author of the video wants to leave you with.”
  • “Ask yourself to wait for more information and non-video content to help you understand what you are seeing.”

The incident at the Lincoln Memorial was disgraceful on many levels. Perhaps the most shameful was reacting to a video clip that showed only part of the story. However, the Covington contingent was not entirely blameless. Covington Catholic High School and the Diocese of Covington should reprimand their March for Life chaperones for allowing their students to be placed in the middle of the protest and then participating in a shouting match. They should also reconsider allowing students to wear “Make America Great Again” hats and sweatshirts to a Catholic school sanctioned event.