‘Hate crime’ claim becomes headline fact as some Detroit media rush to inflame outrage

You needn’t be a journalist to see these ingredients as headline news:

Jewish college student’s jaw is broken in what he calls an anti-Semitic attack that included Nazi slogans and mouth-stapling.

If you are a journalist, though, an inner voice should say: “Careful here” or “This almost sounds too dramatic . . .”

Think about it for a moment: Assailants carrying a stapler? And it was large enough to pierce skin?

HuffPost Detroit kept this head until late Aug. 29, 2012, more than a day after police voiced doubt the case was a hate crime.

Metro Detroit coverage on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012 of injuries suffered by a suburban Michigan State University sophomore, Zachary Tennen, shows who heard a voice of caution and who didn’t in a competitive media market with longtime players, upstart newcomers and all-day opportunities for posting new developments.

The picture includes restraint and excess, as well as a lack of updates as the key framing changed dramatically in mid-afternoon Tuesday. That’s when police signaled doubt that a hate crime had occurred. Shortly after issuing a statement, a captain said two witnesses hadn’t heard Hitler shouts or seen any sign of stapling.

Editors who had qualified their headlines and attributed their leads look better than those running with a tabloid-style approach and keeping their original versions all day and night. That’s their story and they’re sticking to it, evidently.

A day later on Wednesday, HuffPost Detroit’s landing page head still said “Student Has Jaw Broken, Mouth Stapled In Vicious Hate Crime” until shortly after 9 a.m. A longer head on its aggregated pickup, also presenting the claim as fact, remained unchanged as of 10 a.m. [see photo above] despite an update note tucked at the end with the scaled-back police comment.

First, the newsbreak:  Roger Weber of WDIV, an NBC affiliate in Detroit, appears to have been first locally with the 19-year-old’s account of being attacked outside an off-campus party in East Lansing early Sunday, which the station posted online at 5:32 p.m. Monday and aired about that time with a video interview. Weber reported:

His family is calling it a hate crime. Just before the assault, Tennen says, the attackers asked him if he is Jewish. He said yes. “And they were making Nazi and Hitler symbols and they said they were part of the KKK,” he said.

So far, so good. Note the attribution. Only the family calls it a hate crime.

Excess and echoes

The next day, some media showed similar caution while others took a bumpy ride through excess and echoes.

“MSU student in hospital following alleged anti-Semitic hate crime” was the head atop The State News’ first-hand reporting on campus, posted at 6:56 a.m. Tuesday and soon a widely aggregated source.  About 11 hours later, the student paper quoted an East Lansing police captain as saying “two witnesses did not hear or see anything that could be construed as a hate crime. They didn’t see Nazi or Hitler gestures.”

Thirty-four minutes after the first State News posting, a statewide aggregator named picked it up under this head: “Report: Jewish Michigan State student’s lips stapled shut in alleged hate crime at party.”

This was the first elevation of a seemingly far-fetched stapling claim to display-type status. By late afternoon, a reality check was atop all seven versions of the site’s frequently revised story: “UPDATE: East Lansing police say alleged assault likely not a hate crime.”

But the purported stapling angle was too dramatic for others to resist. “MSU Student Knocked Unconscious, Mouth Stapled Shut In Alleged Hate Crime” says the head posted at 2:14 p.m. Tuesday by WWJ Radio and its TV partner, CBS Local.

Head stays after reality-check update

The nine-month-old Huffington Post Detroit loaded its pickup at 1:57 p.m. with a head that still was showcased Wednesday evening: “Zachary Tennen, Michigan State Jewish Student, Victim Of Vicious Hate Crime At Weekend Party.” The article’s lead is also unattributed and unqualified:

Two men gave the “Heil Hitler” salute before knocking Zachary Tennen, a Jewish student at Michigan State University, unconscious and stapling his mouth.

Astonishingly, an update was added at 3:55 p.m. below the 11-paragraph text to note that police believe it’s “not likely a hate crime, and they are not investigating it as one.” The head and lead remained unchanged until Wednesday evening, as though someone decided they’d draw more traffic that way. (The landing page teaser head was changed after 9 a.m. to say “Was Attack Of Student At MSU A Hate Crime?”)

Another startup, the 4-month-old Deadline Detroit site, joined the scrum at 2:31 p.m. Tuesday with this head: “Jewish MSU Student Attacked in Apparent Hate Crime: Attackers Yelled ‘Heil Hitler’.” The qualifier is prudent, though the unconfirmed yell rises to headline fact. The story remained unchanged until after I posted a Facebook callout at 11:15 p.m. that day, despite mid-afternoon backing off by police.

The city’s two dailies performed relative well, though one columnist prefers her gut sense to what detectives believe.

The Detroit Free Press promptly reported police skepticism at 2:41 p.m. Tuesday, though its head wasn’t changed: ” ‘I’ve never heard of anything so horrific,’ says father of MSU student who was brutally attacked.”

‘Pretty sure’ columnist disbelieves cops

A Free Press column by Rochelle Riley went up at 4:36 p.m. Tuesday and is linked to from the landing page Wednesday. Riley acknowledges that authorities backed off from a hate crime assumption, but says:

When someone asks whether you’re Jewish, salutes a dead megalomaniac who killed millions of Jews, then leaves you with your jaw broken and staples shot into your mouth, I’m pretty sure it’s a hate crime.

Trouble is, only one of those four statements – the broken jaw — is a confirmed fact.

The Detroit News played it straight with Metro desk intern Tony Briscoe’s first report around 2 p.m. Tuesday below this head: “MSU student recovering after reported anti-Semitic assault.” The lead paragraphs were updated at 5:17 p.m. under this head: “Police doubt MSU attack was hate crime, have possible suspect.”

In a suburb near the student’s home, Birmingham Patch headlined its 11:55 a.m. Tuesday pickup this way: “MSU Student, Groves Grad, Claims Campus Assault Was Hate Crime.” The head and 11-paragraph aggregated article had not been updated Wednesday.

By contrast, WDIV – the station that was first Sunday evening – quickly reported the new framing at 3:03 p.m. Tuesday, when its web version got a new lead and head: “East Lansing police: Michigan State student’s beating likely not hate crime.”

The case generated more than 300 articles nationwide and as far as Israel, a Google News search showed early Wednesday. More than a few headlines don’t qualify “hate crime” as a claim or treat it as credible.

By qualifying and attributing the family’s initial hate claim, some news outlets avoided getting ahead of the facts and doing readers a disservice. They also acted prudently by updating promptly, prominently.

TAKEAWAY:  Asking “who says?” and “how do we know?” remain best practices for old and new media, as does rechecking sources for possible developments.

Journalists must remember this: The fundamental things still apply.


Ingham County’s prosecutor on Sept. 27, 2012 declined to charge the 18-year-old Farmington Hills man police say punched Zach. “There is no evidence that any ethnic/religious/racial bias was involved in this incident,” Stuart Dunnings III says in a statement reported by MLive.

Even the family backed off, telling the prosecutor via an attorney that it “believes that justice will be best served by closing this investigation.”

[This is updated from an Aug. 29, 2012 Facebook Note essay.]


3 thoughts on “‘Hate crime’ claim becomes headline fact as some Detroit media rush to inflame outrage

  1. EPILOGUE: The Anti-Defamation League acknowledges being misled by Zach Tennen’s family originally,

    “The evidence does not support his claim that the assault involved anti-Semitic hate speech or gestures, nor does it indicate that the incident was motivated by his religion,” Regional Director Betsy Kellman of Southfield says in a Sept. 14, 2012 statement reported by MLive, The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press..

    A representative of the anti-bias group spoke to the teen, his family and East Lansing police.

    The ADL initially was a widely quoted source after the MSU student’s father contacted Kellman, who issued an Aug. 28 news release. “We are horrified by this violent assault and allegations that the student may have been viciously attacked because he was Jewish,” she said.

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