Accountability in the Media: The Cautionary Tale of 'No-Go Zones'
Beginning the day of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, Fox News reported a series of stories centered on the idea of "no-go zones." Such “no-go zones” were portrayed as areas in Europe where non-Muslims and government officials are both banned, and Sharia Law is enforced.
The explosion about the misreporting did not occur instantaneously. The first mention of the false “no-go zones” came and went unnoticed. However, the report on January 10 caused an uproar among national media outlets and government officials like Hidalgo, as well as British Prime Minister David Cameron.
With such egregious allegations, a timeline spanning 10 days until an apology was issued is hard to believe. The error first occurred on January 7, thriving off of its own inflation until January 17, when Fox News reporters and one guest had to issue apologies for the false reports.
The first reference occurred on the Fox News program Hannity on January 7, 2015. In an interview with Anjem Choudary, Sean Hannity references these communities while arguing with Choudary about the attack on the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo.
On January 8, the day after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, Steve Emerson was invited on Hannity as a terrorism expert. The interview featured new details about “no-go zones,” including shaky percentages, false locations, and moral outrage over practices in these neighborhoods.
Although “no-go zones” had been talked about earlier that week with many incorrect assertions already made, the report that drew the most outrage occurred on January 10, on the program Justice with Jeanine Pirro. This time, Emerson added even more details about the situation, citing the city of Birmingham in England as one of these “no-go zones.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron responded, saying, “When I heard this, frankly, I choked on my porridge and I thought it must be April Fools’ Day. This guy’s clearly a complete idiot.”
K.T. McFarland, Fox News National Security Analyst, was interviewed about “no-go zones.” McFarland’s interview was full of detail, even describing some residents as wearing “Osama bin Laden t-shirts… ISIS t-shirts.”
The week preceding Saturday, January 17, saw many mentions of “no-go zones,” which had been accepted as fact on Fox News. However, host Julie Banderas issued a formal apology Saturday night, discrediting all claims about these neighborhoods that had been previously made on Fox News. Following her, apologies were also issued from reporters Jeanine Pirro and Anna Kooiman, as well as guest Steve Emerson.
From January 7-17, the seed of misinformation that Sean Hannity first mentioned blew up to become a supposed cultural phenomenon. The reporting fed upon itself, becoming larger and more intricate with each day. However, even with the refutable details made on January 10, which brought to light the falseness of the story, it continued to survive without fact-checking for another week before apologies were issued.
According to TV News Archive, the terms “no-go zone” and “no-go zones” were repeated over 40 times on Fox News during this time period. With a mistake this extensive, it is no wonder that other media outlets are giving the error attention. Jon Stewart, who is known for his jabs at Fox News and other media conglomerates, devoted time to the issue on Tuesday, January 20.
"What did they say that was so much wronger than usual that it required a network-wide apology?" Stewart said.
Though specific to this particular error, Stewart’s statement offers an unsettling insight on America's media culture. When people are surprised not by the error itself, but that the error was acknowledged, it signifies that a serious credibility issue is prevalent in the media.
From the 1960s to the early 1980s, Walter Cronkite was the man this entire country turned to for reliable information regarding what was going on in America and around the world. News was purely informative, and viewers treated what they saw on the news as fact for the simple reason that it was.
Sometime in the last 30 years, there was a shift in news media. The news now caters to ratings, reporting sensational stories for the sake of gaining more viewers than their competitors. This phenomenon is common knowledge and is even satirized in movies like Anchorman and late night comedy shows like The Daily Show.
The only thing that has remained the same since the time of Walter Cronkite and reporters like him is how viewers treat the information they get from the news. Stories like the completely fallacious “no-go zone” discussion are absorbed by Fox News viewers as fact. This contributes vastly to the epidemic of misinformation that is so rampant among American citizens. But who is there to hold networks accountable?
Currently, no one really does. While viewers do control ratings, using this control to gain any outcome would be extraordinarily difficult at best. If citizens wanted to encourage a media culture that is factual, boycotting networks who do not report the truth is the way to do it.
Unfortunately, differentiating between real information and stories that contain just enough truth to pass as factual is no small feat. Boycotting then becomes utterly impractical. This being taken into consideration, it may truly be impossible to hold news media accountable.
*The Fox report from January 10 has been taken down.