Last week, there was yet another news frenzy over something that happened on social media. A Muslim Northwestern University chaplain, Tahera Ahmad, wrote on her Facebook page that she was in "tears of humiliation from discrimination" because a flight attendant refused to give her an unopened can of soda. Ahmad claimed that she was told that this was so she couldn't use the can of soda as a weapon, and that another passenger told her, "You Moslem, you need to shut the f— up.”
Pretty soon the story was flying around social media, and a hashtag campaign #unitedfortahera popped up. Major news outlets, such as CNN, ABC News, and the Washington Post, covered the story. The Daily Show used the whole episode as the launching point for a bit about the allegedly rampant Islamophobia consuming America. United went into crisis PR mode, publicly apologized, and reassigned the flight attendant in question.
What's really remarkable about this story is, near as I can tell, at no point in the last week did any of these major media outlets try and independently verify the details of of Ahmad's story.
Well, according to the Savvy Stews travel website, passengers who were on board the same flight have posted messages on the Internet with very specific details about what transpired that appear to contradict Ahmad's story and portray her as the one being rude and out of line. For the record, Ahmad's story always struck me as not entirely credible for lots of reasons, including the fact that I personally have been denied an unopened Coke Zero on a flight, and as a white Christian male, this did not occur to me to be a discriminatory act. Indeed, the Savvy Stews point out that there are all sorts of logistical reasons -- e.g. there's a limited number of Coke Zeros in the small beverage carts -- why flight attendants may not be inclined or able to give someone a full can of soda.
Anyway, my hunches aside, I would like to note that what's happened with this story is a complete and total perversion of journalism. Whether it's simply for clicks or because folks are anxious enough to promote any account of injustice that reinforces the media's center-left world view, it is inexcusable to turn someone's one-sided Facebook post into a national news story without making an effort to verify the details.
The media should be chastened by their previous behavior -- they've been burned multiple times by amplifying the bountiful harvest of social media hoaxes. In 2013, a lesbian waitress in New Jersey raked in thousands in donations after the media picked up on her Facebook post that featured a photo of a receipt where her customer allegedly denied her a tip and wrote that it was because "I do not agree with your lifestyle." The whole episode turned out to have been made up by the waitress.
Accounts like these have real world consequences. The flight attendant in question has been reassigned, and who knows how this has been detrimental for her. Beyond accepting Ahmad's words at face(book) value, I have yet to see any real proof that she did anything wrong.
Finally, journalists who think that a single, unverified account left on someone's Facebook page is all they need to hang a story on ought to think long and hard about the incentives they are creating for people. Knowing that there's a good chance you can say anything and it won't be investigated and corroborated is just going to encourage a lot of people who have very unhealthy motives to aspire to be the victim du jour.
Maybe Tahera Ahmad was treated unfairly and discriminated against, but it's really appalling that the facts of what happened to her would not be established before we mess with a flight attendant's career, drag an airline through the mud, and use the episode as a launching point for a national conversation about Islamophobia.
But I guess this is what passes for "journalism" these days.