Bad journalism can sometimes have tragic consequences. Thus was the case in early 2022 at Winchester Thurston Academy (WT), a small private school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Various news outlets reported and opined on a story about students accused of mocking the death of George Floyd without ever having interviewed the students involved. The only perspective the news outlets had was provided by the school, a school that had an interest in drawing as little attention as possible to a racially charged incident.
As a result, three students, under pressure from WT administrators, left the school without ever having their version of events shared publicly, leaving them permanently and unjustly marked with a scarlet letter of racism. Since that time, the students and their families have suffered harassment, missed opportunities, and experienced other injuries, largely because they did not receive a fair hearing at the school or in the court of public opinion.
Case in point, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PG), in an editorial published February 22 titled, An opportunity for healing after racist incident at Winchester Thurston, accepted without question the version of events conveyed by the school administration, committing an act of irresponsible journalism further exacerbating a completely misunderstood and exploited incident.
In the winter of 2022, a small group of teenage students engaged in horseplay common to kids their age, unwittingly created an opportunity for a video recording that was later surreptitiously obtained by another student and edited to make it appear the students were intentionally demeaning the death of George Floyd.
Here is how it went down. Two boys were playfully trying to get a phone away from one of their friends, a girl wearing a mask, who ended up on the floor with the boys’ hands on her back holding her face down. The boys can be heard repeatedly saying “give up the phone” as the girl struggled and understandably said, “I can’t breathe”. Unknown to the trio of students wrestling for the phone, another student used his phone to record the incident.
In the course of the interaction, a student who was a friend of the kids, insensitively yelled “George” which can be clearly heard in the recording along with the laughter from the kids engaged in roughhousing play. It is wrong and unfortunate the student uttered “George” but it is clear he did so without malice of forethought.
Here is where the incident takes a dark turn. Another student gained access to the phone of the student who originally recorded the incident and copied the video file. The student who copied the 17 second video edited it down to 4 seconds beginning with the “George” soundbite followed by “I can’t breathe” and laughter, then widely distributed the manipulated video to others, particularly targeting minority students. The implication was the students involved in the recording staged the event to make some kind of racist statement. Nothing could be further from the truth, but you can imagine the outrage it generated and the attention it drew, including coverage in local media.
As the tempest began to rage in the school, administrators and teachers were shell-shocked. Having in the past experienced claims of racial insensitivity, the school administrators acted cautiously as the reaction to the video festered and nearly the entire campus believed the event was premeditated, a claim found to be untrue by a WT investigation. Unfortunately, the spark already fell on dry tender and the flames of racial tension were burning out of control. The adults at the school failed the children, both the students who unwittingly were recorded engaged in spontaneous and innocent behavior and the students who became outraged.
The Post-Gazette blew it, both in reporting and editorializing. The editorial said incorrectly, the “…students, both white, mimicking the fatal encounter between George Floyd and Officer Derek Chauvin…” implying the students in the video knowingly staged the event with racial malice. WT investigators publicly acknowledged the event was not staged but the PG reporting and editorializing wrongly suggested otherwise.
In the editorial, the PG claims “One young man is kneeling on the neck of another in a parody of the murder…,” which is also untrue. There was no such image in the video and no such intention. By incorrectly reporting the facts, the PG was simply throwing gasoline on the fire. It wouldn’t have taken much digging for the paper, and other news outlets, to have presented a more balanced view of what actually happened.
Unfortunately, the scars left by the school and news outlets official record of the events will forever mark the students involved. There is no way to anticipate what affect the inaccurate reporting may have on their futures. And, it is nearly impossible to predict the ongoing personal issues the students may suffer from being treated unfairly.