Tuesday evening, as reports began to circulate that the Republican presidential caucus in Nevada was getting a bit goofy around the gills, photographs of these two cretins blew up all over Twitter:
You can more than understand why normal human beings expressed outrage at, and drew conclusions from, this image. People in Klan hoods! At a polling place! Supporting Trump!
But journalists, they are not normal human beings. They are supposed to, at least before hitting "publish," operate with skepticism, ask follow-up questions, and engage in verification. And there were at least four reasons to be skeptical about this photograph:
1) It is presidential campaign season. People have a strong vested interest in making their opponents, and supporters of their opponents, look like moral monsters. There have been multiple incidents in recent history of fake racist supporters being planted at right-of-center gatherings. Donald Trump gatherings in particular have drawn bizarre media stunts.
2) Las Vegas is more than 2,500 miles away from New England. Why would a member from the New England Benevolent Police Association travel that far, or how would anyone not from that organization have ever heard of it? (As it happens, NEBPA, which in December drew at least modest national notice by endorsing Trump, released a strongly worded statement of disassociation Wednesday that began with the sentence, "Racism & hate has NO place in civilized society and those who hide under a hood, behind a mask, or under a sheet are nothing short of cowardice.") There has already been a primary election in a New England state, and yet no reports of NEBPA-labeled Klansmen (or any other Klansmen, to my knowledge). Are they simply more comfortable out West?
3) "Jesus deported illegals" does not sound like a sincere slogan of support. It sounds like political satire.
4) There were no reported follow-up interviews with the would-be Klansmen.
So how did news organizations treat these photographs? Outside of Snopes, The Wrap, and various right-of-center outlets, far too many had headlines like this: "Ku Klux Klan Show up to Support Donald Trump's Victory at Nevada Caucus," "KKK Joins Trump Supporters at High School for Nevada Caucus," and "KKK-style protest mars caucus at Las Vegas site." Twitter for an hour or so was a parade of journalists and commentators making brave stances against KKK intimidation in 2016.
Were the robe-wearers actual Klansmen? I seriously doubt it, but who knows? It's been a weird year. One way to better sort through these controversies, however, is for journalists, at the least, to seek some further corroborating information aside from looking at an Internet picture before declaring the latest race war as being upon us once more.