In our opinion: It's time to learn from the dangerously quick judgments of the past

By In Our Opinion, For the Deseret News

Published: Thu, Sept. 4, 2014, 12:00 a.m. MDT

 Demonstrators march through the streets in the Chinatown neighborhood of Washington, Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014, during a protest against the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

Demonstrators march through the streets in the Chinatown neighborhood of Washington, Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014, during a protest against the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

(Jose Luis Magana, Associated Press)

Two years ago, the media reported that Trayvon Martin, a young, unarmed black man, had been gunned down by a white assailant named George Zimmerman, and racism was the reason. But then the facts started to dribble out, and many of the assumptions that drove the initial outrage turned out to be inaccurate.

The Martin shooting wasn’t the first time the media has gotten it wrong. Many may not remember the case of Richard Jewell, the security guard who alerted police about pipe bombs left in a park during the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. He was wrongfully charged with the crime of planting the bombs himself, and he was virtually tried and convicted in the court of public opinion. When it became clear that Jewell was innocent, tremendous damage had been done to his reputation.

Utah has its own share of examples of rushes to judgment. Theories about Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping were reported and discussed, and people were implicated who had nothing to do with the crime. Patience would have spared a great deal of unnecessary pain.

These stories and more should have taught all of us that jumping to conclusions at the outset of a volatile media frenzy is foolish at best and dangerous at worst.

Ferguson, Missouri, proves that is a lesson America still hasn’t learned.

The first media dispatches about Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson were unsettlingly similar to initial reports about Martin. Word got around that a racist police officer had shot a “gentle giant” eight times in the back, and the community erupted with violence and looting. And amid the chaos, political opportunists used this to, once again, demonstrate that white-vs.-black violence is always just below the surface.

Today, the public knows a great deal more about the incident than the looters did. For instance, an autopsy showed Brown wasn’t shot in the back. Reports came in that Brown had attacked the officer who shot him, and the officer suffered a shattered eye socket as a result. Later reports clarified that the officer had not, in fact, suffered an “orbital blowout fracture,” but he did go the hospital with a badly swollen face, which would indicate that there was more to this story than a racist cop with an itchy trigger finger.

This story is not over, and there will likely be more revelations to come. But all these incidents ought to give pause to anyone eager to rush to judgment when controversial news breaks. It shouldn’t take as much time as it usually does for cooler heads to prevail.

1. GaryO
Virginia Beach, VA,
Sept. 4, 2014

"It's time to learn from the dangerously quick judgements of the past"

. . . And yet Obama is roundly and rabidly criticized by "Conservatives" for taking the time to meet with international allies in designing strategies to address conflicts in the Middle East and the Ukraine.

2. dave4197
Redding, CA,
Sept. 4, 2014

There are real problems in Ferguson, and your quite close minded opinion that some may have spoken too soon is not good for open discussion.
Michael Brown was killed by cop Wilson. The pd is still sitting on facts that ought to be public, we're all grownups. There was (apparent to me) zero justification for this killing. cop Wilson may have lost a street fight in his car, that does not justify killing Brown. Speak out, DN, please, this incident was the gravest of injustices. We have to keep the Ferguson pd and their likes on the front burner to disclose their facts, to show their (likely in my view) guilt, and to make them change their ways.
The real quick judgement in this incident was cop Wilson's. And don't let us ever forget that most salient point.

3. E Sam
Provo, UT,
Sept. 4, 2014

Eyewitnesses did not report that Michael Brown was shot in the back. He had turned to face the officer, and had his hands up, surrendering. No one disputes that Brown and officer Martin were involved in a brief struggle. The shooting remains unjustified.

4. Back Talk
Federal Way, WA,
Sept. 4, 2014

As normal citizens we dont know even the half of it but what we do know is that Russia has invaded an independant Ukraine and ISIS presents a greater threat than AlQeda(sp). Time is of the essense in these matters. ISIS and Russia are both emboldened by our weak response so whenever we do decide what to do, it will be more difficult to do.

I dont think your example matches the premise of this story. I am sure that we will learn even more about what happened in Missouri but until then we should resist the rumor mill.

5. GZE
Sept. 4, 2014

I don't know anyone personally who does not continue to be outraged by the shooting of Trayvon Martin. It did not need to turn out that way.

Same with Michael Brown. Robbing a 7-11 is not a death penalty offense.