Where have all the fact checkers gone?

Kaitlyn Hunt with her friends and family bringing boxes of Free Kate T-shirts and bracelets to a rally at Sebastian Riverview Park.
Kaitlyn Hunt with her friends and family bringing boxes of Free Kate T-shirts and bracelets to a rally at Sebastian Riverview Park.

NEWS ANALYSIS

BY CHRISTINA TASCON

Unless you have been hiding under a rock or out of reach of any forms of digital or electronic informational outlets, most likely you have heard of the Kaitlyn Hunt story.

Just for the sake of this story’s premise, I will recap the issue anyway.

An 18-year old girl, Kaitlyn Hunt, was arrested and charged with two felony counts of Lewd or Lascivious Battery.  Hunt who was 18 had sex with a 14-year-old classmate at Sebastian River High School.

The Hunt arrest for her same sex felony has brought worldwide interest.  Interest was fueled by an intensive social media campaign by the Hunt family and her friends.

Fact:  Kaitlyn Hunt is currently 18 and her alleged victim was 14 at the time of the sexual incident but is currently 15 now.

Fact:  Both girls admit to the sexual relationship.

Fact:  The victim’s parents—James and Laurie Smith, brought their daughter into the Indian River County Sheriff’s Department and filed a criminal complaint against Kaitlyn Hunt and their daughter participated in two controlled phone calls with Ms. Hunt.  Those phone conversations convinced the Sheriff’s Department that they had a legitimate cause to arrest Hunt.

Fact:  Sexual relations between a 14 year old and an 18 year old is a felony which can carry up to 15 years in prison with the person convicted being labeled a sexual predator.  The law considers the age of consent to be 16 years old.  That means the state does not consider the victim to be able to enter into a “consensual” sexual relationship.

Okay, those are the facts, but the stories that have come out through social media venues, online websites configured by Hunt’s family and friends and even through professional news outlets vary depending on which one you watch, read or listen to on the radio.

(Search Google for the article about Hunt on American Thinker for the most outrageous twisting of facts at the moment.)

It is a story with both sides fighting to get their point across to the public with most of the public face time on the Hunt’s side more aggressively than the Smith’s.

The Hunt’s went full on frontal attack and took to social media–Facebook, Twitter and contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) organization, several news agencies and a group called Change.org and fueled a massive media and public feeding frenzy which still keeps growing.

The arrest would have been a non-news generator other than for the fact that they threw in the same-sex issue and claimed Hunt was being persecuted as a victim of homophobic hate.  In fact, the battle cry of her website and on the t-shirts and bracelets boldly read “Stop the Hate, Free Kate.”

“Stop the Hate, Free Kate.”  Easy to remember don’t you think?  That is what always makes for a great advertising campaign.

The parents of the victim claim that whether it was a male or female having sex with their daughter, they would have been just as upset and protective.  They say it was about the age difference and they were just being advocates for their child.

No one is saying outright that it is okay for 14 year olds and 18 year olds to have sex but many believe that in the state of Florida, the law should take the circumstances of the case into account and make the charge a misdemeanor and not have a tag for life of a sexual predator or child abuser.

In that, the majority of pundits speaking about the case basically agree.  Punishment is supposed to be about teaching a lesson and paying for the wrongs one does.  Many feel that what Hunt has experienced to this point may already be enough of a lesson.  Not to just her but hopefully all 18 year olds who hear about this case.

What has been the sticking point in this case is that Hunt’s 15 minutes of fame comes at the price of factual information and a slanted view of the other side of the story.  The digital age has brought every eye on this with each person sharing the story tinged with their own editorial.  The one with the most “likes” wins.

State Attorney Bruce Colton said he had three pages of requests for quotes and calls from media around the world.  From the New York Times and the Associated Press to The Guardian in London and the Windy City Gay News in Chicago.  He says this is not about sexual orientation at all.

The Smith’s attorney, Charles Sullivan Jr., says the jails are filled with people who make poor choices, but what Hunt did was illegal and by others calling the sex consensual to justify it should not even be an option.

The Hunts along with their attorney Julia Graves have appeared on the NBC Today Show, Chris Hayes’ “All In” on MSNBC as well as CNN.  They say that the crime does not fit the punishment and that in the past others have received lesser charges than Hunt.  Truthfully that is the real issue but what has fueled this debate and Hunt’s supporters is the same sex issue.

The ACLU is backing her cause…not a surprise really.  Her petition on Change.org is up to almost 300,000 supporters..

That is the society we live in now.  A sound bite or shared cause célèbre and sides are taken and a line in the sand is drawn.  Repost it, share it, sign an online petition!  Five seconds and off it goes into cyberspace.  No real effort and instant gratification that the poster has done some good and had their say.

Celebrities are made by fans tweeting about them or by the amount of followers they have and friends that they amass on Facebook.

This story took on a life of its own through a group of “admins” who are friends of the Hunt’s.  Brooks Medlin, one of the “admins” says there are over twenty of them, mostly friends of the family.

“Admins” are what are known in the digital world as website and Facebook page administrators.  The FreeKate.net and Facebook pages vitally depend on these people to not only get the word out but to keep the pages free of Kate bashers.  Medlin said the “admins” are “lightning fast at removing negative comments.”

That means there is no room for oppositional debate and readers must remember that when taking information about the case from something written there (and so should the media).  Items are more likely an opinion than factual information, and if anyone posts anything that does not promote their viewpoint, they are removed.

Craig Silverman of the Columbia Journalism Review wrote a fascinating story about the media and the role of fact checking in an article about Der Spiegel, a German weekly magazine.

Der Spiegel is home to what is most likely the world’s largest fact checking operation.  They have approximately 70 to 80 full time fact checkers and the rest are part time consultants who review items of specific knowledge.

Der Spiegel’s level of passion about the role of fact checking is based on their relationship with their readers and desire to always have the most correct information written under its cover.

Online news as well as today’s media do not have that same trust relationship.

Facebook, websites and even many media outlets really do not have any safeguards in place anymore to be sure all the correct information is going to the public and so it is buyer beware when watching the news or reading anything online these days.

In the Hunt case, the ages of the girls have been incorrectly reported many times and the sequence of events misstated as well.   The stories came out fast and furious and it was obvious that one media group just took their comments from what was written or reported on another site verbatim.

Perhaps that comes from living in a time when readers want their information instantaneously and if they do not get it from one source, they will quickly go online and look for another.

Since readership is what advertisers pay for, this makes for a higher level of competition to get the story out faster than the others.  When further facts are revealed, they just release them later as “Breaking News.”

With the encouragement of reader submissions and guest columnists even print media comes under scrutiny as well.

Most stories are quotes of what the players in the event are saying with the nature of the old telephone game.   A word added or an attitude left out changes the story just a bit each time.

In this case my publisher at InsideVero held back in joining the rush and gave the story time to unfold further to hear all sides.

That is what the news should be all about, not giving anyone a bullhorn and letting them lead the public in their own personal parade.

It is my hope that Kate Hunt does not have to spend time in jail for what is basically a youthful stupid, albeit illegal, error in judgment.

Perhaps the Hunt’s media online frenzy may even help Florida laws change to make the consequences of these kinds of cases more appropriate.

But one thing Facebook, Twitter and the followers of most social networks have in common are that a new story, “post” or a “tweet” is seconds away.  It is easier to just share a story than to find out the facts and then lead a cause based on knowledge over emotion.

For Hunt’s sake her supporters will hopefully stay with her campaign but in the online world, a month or two is thousands of new “shares” away and the next new outrage is coming up just minutes from now.  We will have to wait and see if her “friends” have the staying power.

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