Face it, Maltese media: we screwed up

From this perspective, the way we got the Zach Meli story so totally wrong is only a natural progression from the way the Maltese media has approached its entire mission these past few years

If ever there was a time when the media should take a step back and look at the bigger picture... this is it. And yes, I include myself – and all the media platforms I have ever worked for, or contributed to in any way – in the following accusation. You can take the rest of this article as a ‘mea culpa’ as much as it is a ‘nostra culpa’: we, the Maltese media, have screwed up... badly.

I’m going to assume you know the details (such that they are) of the case I’m referring to. A 24-year-old man died last Sunday morning, under circumstances that are by no means clear... and it was widely reported in the press that he had been ‘allegedly’ punched in the head... by a ‘foreigner’.

Given what we now know – i.e., that the preliminary autopsy revealed no signs of violence – it is obvious to everyone that something went horribly wrong somewhere. To me, it is equally obvious that the media should now conduct a post-mortem of its own. It is, after all, an issue that affects our own credibility, and there is evidence – including a poll published just yesterday – that the mainstream media is rapidly losing public trust. So how did we all make such a clumsy mistake in reporting this particular case? Was it a one-off, fluke occurrence owing to unique circumstances... or is it a mistake we just keep making, over and over again?

Part of the reason for this ghastly misunderstanding was that the original police press release included details that were, in fact, ‘allegations’. And while this might look like I’m passing the buck... hey, the police said so, didn’t they? – in actual fact it doesn’t really lessen our collective responsibility, as journalists, one tiny bit. Yes, the police screwed up, too. They released details of a ‘preliminary investigation’ that could (and did) distort perception of events. But they also told us that the details were unconfirmed; that the investigation was not conclusive. And it’s up to us, the media, to decide what to do with the details we are given.

Mind you: I’m not saying I would have done any differently, were I the journalist ‘storifying’ that particular police statement. Probably I would have interpreted it as ‘official’ enough to report, too... like all local newsrooms did. But so what, if I’d have made the same mistake? It’s still a mistake. And there are still all the potential consequences to take into consideration.

We have somehow reached a stage where 'allegations' and 'facts' have become virtually indistinguishable

But I’ll come to those consequences in a moment. Meanwhile, there is another reason why we – the media – should all pay close attention to what happened this week. ‘One-off, fluke occurrence’, my foot. In recent years I have literally lost count of media stories that departed from an unconfirmed allegation... ‘somebody said’, ‘it was alleged’, etc... and simply stayed at that level throughout. Hardly ever have I seen any of those stories ever progress to what should really be Phase One of the operation: and at least try to confirm that allegation before rushing to print.

Yet that is part of what the media is all about. Any old twit can repeat an allegation, you know. And in any case: since when are ‘allegations’ our stock in trade? OK, so ‘the media’ has come to signify many things over the years... it’s not all about news reporting; there’s analysis, there is op-ed, and so on. But sift through the mechanics, and you’ll find that the nuts and bolts of the profession are – or should be – verified and/or corroborated facts. There are even guidelines and protocols that every journalist is supposed to know by heart: for instance, that ‘corroboration by at least two independent, reliable sources’ is required just to go to print with a story. And even that is not enough to use the word ‘confirmed’: it only means that an ‘allegation’ is safe to report... only as an allegation, not as a fact.

From this perspective, the way we got the Zach Meli story so totally wrong is only a natural progression from the way the Maltese media has approached its entire mission these past few years. We have somehow reached a stage where ‘allegations’ and ‘facts’ have become virtually indistinguishable... when it is precisely our job to distinguish between them.

Imagine other professions losing sight of their primary objectives like that. The law-courts? Quite frankly, we wouldn’t have any trials at all. No need to hear evidence; no need to cross-examine witnesses... we’d all simply fast-forward to the part where the suspect is found guilty, and leave it at that. Doctors? They wouldn’t even take one look at you. No check-up, no examination of medical history, no diagnosis... just straight to the cure: “Allegedly, you have the ‘flu. Here’s your unconfirmed prescription...”

I mean, come on. You wouldn’t accept that from a doctor, would you? Why should it be any different with journalists?

For this is another issue that should be of concern to us: however bad the mistake, and however it was made in the first place... just look at how quickly (and, it must be said, eagerly) it was lapped up. What does that tell us about the impact of the stories we publish, and the details we include?

From the outset, I was reluctant to go into the ‘details’ of this case – because, quite simply, we don’t have any yet. At the time of writing, even the precise cause of death (i.e., the crux of the entire matter) remains unknown. All we can say with any certainty is that ‘there were no signs of violence’: and we can safely say this, only because it emerged from the autopsy.

Everything else that got reported can be traced to... hearsay, basically. The sort of evidence that would not stand up in a court of law. And in this particular case, there are additional reasons to be cautious. The original allegation could (and should) have been passed off as an understandable human reaction by a grief-stricken relative. How did we allow it to become the one thing that everyone wanted to know more about?

But I’ll stop there, because the real problem isn’t that ‘someone, somewhere’ made the claim online; it is that the claim got picked up and turned it into the fulcrum of the entire story. And matters got considerably worse when the identity of the suspect was made public, before he had even been questioned (still less charged).

Corroboration by at least two independent, reliable sources is required just to go to print with a story

This is the point where we can no longer ignore the possible consequences. I feel the need to be blunt about this: we’re all incredibly fortunate that (so far) there has only been one fatality connected to this story. It could very easily have been the deaths of two young men reported over the weekend. The one that got reported... and the one that came this close to being lynched.

Lynched. Now that’s a pretty darn serious possible consequence, for a mistake made by the media – no matter how much blame can be laid at the media’s door. Tell you the truth, I am still a little shocked by the sheer speed at which I saw the online lynch mob form. Within literally hours of the publication of what was, at the end of the day, an unconfirmed allegation, that Bulgarian teenager’s Facebook wall was so scrawled over with death-threats that it had to be taken down.

Clearly, there is more at work in this nasty business than mere sloppiness by the media. In this case, as with others, there is also a public agenda that both encourages and perpetuates the misconception.

It is obviously no coincidence that the ‘Patrijotti Maltin’s reaction was to announce a public protest to ‘defend the Maltese against foreigners’. The only reason this particular allegation was so readily and eagerly believed, was that it fit snugly with a preconceived political agenda that already existed.

In this case, the allegation happened to coincide with the Far Right’s long-standing narrative that Malta is ‘under threat from a foreign invasion’. In other cases, it might have appealed to prejudices of a different – but equally dangerous – sort. In fact, there is a level at which it doesn’t even matter what the particular prejudice happens to be. We are increasingly basing our perception of ‘the truth’ more on our own biases and inherently jaundiced expectations – which, in turn, are greatly amplified by the size and scope of our own social media bubble – and increasingly less on what actually happened.

But again: it is the media’s responsibility to act as a buffer zone between those two incompatible worlds. And our collective failure to do this could quite easily have cost a man his life this week. So if nothing else, let’s at least try and take advantage of this awful incident to figure out where we’re all going wrong.

You can all start with me if you like: the comment section below is open.

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