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In our opinion: It's time to learn from the dangerously quick judgments of the past

By In Our Opinion

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Sept. 4 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, Sept. 4 2014 1:01 p.m. MDT

Demonstrators march through the streets in the Chinatown neighborhood of Washington, Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014, during a protest against the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

Jose Luis Magana, Associated Press

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Two years ago, the media reported that Trayvon Martin, a young, unarmed black man, had been gunned down by a white assailant named George Zimmerman, and racism was the reason. But then the facts started to dribble out, and many of the assumptions that drove the initial outrage turned out to be inaccurate.

The Martin shooting wasn’t the first time the media has gotten it wrong. Many may not remember the case of Richard Jewell, the security guard who alerted police about pipe bombs left in a park during the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. He was wrongfully charged with the crime of planting the bombs himself, and he was virtually tried and convicted in the court of public opinion. When it became clear that Jewell was innocent, tremendous damage had been done to his reputation.

Utah has its own share of examples of rushes to judgment. Theories about Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping were reported and discussed, and people were implicated who had nothing to do with the crime. Patience would have spared a great deal of unnecessary pain.

These stories and more should have taught all of us that jumping to conclusions at the outset of a volatile media frenzy is foolish at best and dangerous at worst.

Ferguson, Missouri, proves that is a lesson America still hasn’t learned.

The first media dispatches about Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson were unsettlingly similar to initial reports about Martin. Word got around that a racist police officer had shot a “gentle giant” eight times in the back, and the community erupted with violence and looting. And amid the chaos, political opportunists used this to, once again, demonstrate that white-vs.-black violence is always just below the surface.

Today, the public knows a great deal more about the incident than the looters did. For instance, an autopsy showed Brown wasn’t shot in the back. Reports came in that Brown had attacked the officer who shot him, and the officer suffered a shattered eye socket as a result. Later reports clarified that the officer had not, in fact, suffered an “orbital blowout fracture,” but he did go the hospital with a badly swollen face, which would indicate that there was more to this story than a racist cop with an itchy trigger finger.

This story is not over, and there will likely be more revelations to come. But all these incidents ought to give pause to anyone eager to rush to judgment when controversial news breaks. It shouldn’t take as much time as it usually does for cooler heads to prevail.

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