The corporate news media’s attack of James Tracy in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre’s press coverage is examined in a recent scholarly article, “Media errors and the ‘nutty professor’: Riding the journalistic boundaries of the Sandy Hook shootings,” by Dan Berkowitz and Zhengjia Michelle Liu of The University of Iowa.* The paper was published in Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism in late 2014.
“The point of this article is that when faced with a fast-breaking crisis or disaster, journalists quickly fall back on what-a-story news routines and memory of similar events of the past,” the introduction reads.
Competition among news organizations and audience expectations for immediacy have increased reliance on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. With less time for verification in this sped-up reporting process, errors often result. Before the appearance of social media, newspapers and broadcast media were able to quickly bury these kinds of errors. With social media, though, come increased media errors that threaten the boundaries of appropriate professional journalistic practice, which are then addressed by both mainstream and social media in an effort to rebalance the professional terrain.
The essay proceeds to address how major news media dealt with Tracy’s Sandy Hook massacre analyses, arguing that because Tracy was a tenured professor yet was also publicly suggesting that a conspiracy probably existed between the government and media in the presentation of the event, such media acted defensively to initiate what media sociologists term “boundary work” and “paradigm repair” toward “the renegotiation of journalistic authority.”
In other words, because Tracy’s unorthodox perspectives do not sit easily alongside his occupation of a professional “expert” position–one that journalists often defer to fortify their own professional authority–such journalistic outlets were forced to discredit him through attacks suggesting that he is an anomaly on the academic landscape–a “nutty professor” who should be dismissed by thoughtful and responsible observers.
“The discussion of this case here is not about Professor Tracy, per se,” Berkowitz and Liu argue,
but instead offers a conceptual example of what happens when news media are criticized as complicit in purveying false information. This was not just an attack on Tracy’s authority, but a way of renegotiating the professional authority of the media – had Tracy not been a media educator, his claims would have been easily dismissed as yet another conspiracy theorist.
Three themes emerged from analysis of news and opinion pieces about this ‘nutty professor’. First, Tracy’s authority as a communication professor was questioned. Second, the Nutty Professor was categorized as an online phenomenon, not within the professional media boundary. Third, Tracy’s theory on media errors was rejected by normalizing ‘honest mistakes’.
The authors continue to explain “how the media responded to accusations of cooperating in a government conspiracy … ”
First, the authority of a normally credible information source – a college professor – was brought into question. Rather than allowing a communication professor to serve as an authority on media behavior, media lumped him together with other conspiracy theorists, even labeling him a ‘conspiracy flake’ (Hiaasen, 2013). This, in essence, was yet another form of boundary work. A second element also involved boundary work, where the ——- ——– professor’s medium of choice – a blog – was set outside the realm of professional media. Again, the Nutty Professor’s credibility was challenged. Finally, a third element involved normalizing the professor’s conspiracy theory to represent nothing more than ‘honest mistakes’ made in the heat of battle. In essence, rather than arguing about the conspiracy accusations, the media chose instead to redefine the boundaries of credible authority.
In all, the three themes comprised a storyline to defend the news media from Professor Tracy’s attack on its authority: First, Tracy was discredited as a professor, labeled instead as a conspiracy theorist trying to grab online attention by speaking against the mainstream media. Second, media errors in the Sandy Hook reporting were not part of a conspiracy but instead honest mistakes by public officials. Third, Tracy’s theories, just like other conspiracies, did not represent reality and should be ignored.
The article goes on to explain (quite astutely in this author’s view) how Tracy’s oft-cited blog post, “The Sandy Hook Massacre: Unanswered Questions and Missing Information,” was (perhaps intentionally) misquoted and certain of its assertions highlighted while the rationale for such remarks was downplayed.
Reporting of the Sandy Hook shootings passed beyond the what-a-story news level when James Tracy’s theory of media’s ‘real role’ was brought into the public attention. One of his early blog posts (24 December 2012) was repeatedly quoted in media coverage: While it sounds like an outrageous claim, one is left to inquire whether the Sandy Hook shooting ever took place – at least in the way law enforcement authorities and the nation’s media have described. (Cortes, 2013; Hiaasen, 2013; Jaccarino, 2013; Khazem, 2013)
Tracy’s rationale for this assertion was less quoted, however, as he referred to W. Lance Bennett’s (2012) concept of ‘authority-disorder bias’. Put into this context, Tracy (2012) argued, “Outside of a handful of citizen journalists and alternative media commentators Sandy Hook’s dramatically shifting factual and circumstantial terrain has escaped serious critique because it is presented through major media’s carefully constructed prism of select sound bits alongside a widespread and longstanding cultural impulse to accept the pronouncements of experts …” (24 December)
MHB is excited that the unpleasant affair provided the basis for such a study. Along these lines, Tracy recently wrote an essay, tentatively titled, “Confessions of a Conspiracy Theory Professor,” slated to appear in a forthcoming edited volume addressing various social and political implications of “conspiracy theories.” The essay documents Tracy’s personal encounters with news media and the confusion and mistreatment of university administrators following public statements on the Sandy Hook and Boston mediated events.
*Disclosure: Dan Berkowitz was on faculty at Iowa’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication when James Tracy was a doctoral student there. Berkowitz was faculty advisor to the Journal of Communication Inquiry when Tracy was the publication’s book reviews editor in 2001-02. Berkowitz did not serve on Tracy’s dissertation committee and there was no consultation between Berkowitz and Tracy during the article’s development.