Emotional Health

Read All About It: The Danger of Getting It Wrong

An illustration of what can happen when basic facts are distorted, even a little, can be seen in the history of a famous story once printed in The New York Times, then turned into a book called “Thirty-Eight Witnesses” by the highly respected journalist A. M. Rosenthal, who later became the managing editor.

The Genovese story as originally reported was not fake news, but it was misleading. According to the original story, Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old barmaid, was stabbed to death outside her Queens, New York, apartment at 3 in the morning in 1964.  Multiple witnesses saw the crime and heard her cries for help, the story went, but no one acted, either assuming that someone else must have called the police or wishing not to “get involved.” Because the police never came, the attacker returned a few minutes later to finish the job. The front-page story, which claimed that 38 people witnessed the crime and did nothing, became an infamous example of apathy and heartlessness.

The initial reporting was inaccurate in many details. A fascinating documentary about the case called The Witness, available on Netflix, follows one of Kitty’s surviving brothers as he tries to find out what really happened.

What Mr. Genovese discovered, without that much difficulty, set the record straight. There weren’t 38 eyewitnesses to the murder, which happened first outside and then in an apartment vestibule. Very few people saw anything at all, although there could have been many more who heard her screaming. Only a handful of people probably saw the man attack Kitty, and one yelled, “Let that girl alone.” At least two neighbors claim to have rung the cops, although police logs have no record of those calls. Another neighbor, Sophia Farrar, ran to help Kitty and held her as she died. “All five-foot-nothing of her went flying down the stairs at 3:30 in the morning,” Genovese marvels. “She doesn’t know what she’s going to come upon. She hadn’t given a second thought to whether the guy was still there or not.”

That heroic act, however, didn’t conform to The Times’s portrait of urban indifference. There’s no mention of Ferrar in the 1964 story.

The incomplete Genovese story led to a flurry of psychological studies culminating in a concept that became widely known as “the bystander effect.” The bystander effect occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation: the perceived diffusion of responsibility makes onlookers more likely to intervene if there are few or no other witnesses (and vice versa).

This research also contributed to the understanding of the idea of social influence in group situations. Research suggests that people take their cues from those around them more often in group situations in order to decide what to do and rely less on their own personal judgment as a result.

Since the original horrific account of the Queens neighbors’ indifference propelled research that led to a useful perspective on the bystander effect—a genuine phenomenon with real consequences—we might wonder now, how was this hurtful? It did illustrate a trend that was real: the growing apathy of city dwellers to their neighbors and their reluctance to aid each other. It led to valuable research about group psychology that has stood the test of time. But anything false has the potential for hurt, and consequences can be quite real.

Consider the Genovese family. They were haunted by years by pain about their lost sister, especially by thoughts of her dying alone, and this turned out not to be true. Even worse, her brother, tormented by the inaction of others, volunteered to serve in Vietnam, he says, as a direct result. There he lost both his legs and has been in a wheelchair for over 50 years.

To its credit, The Times printed a correction when more facts came to light—a correction to which they gave plenty of space and attention. Many media organizations are committed to good reporting, to getting the facts right, and when their reporters fail, the consequences are swift and decisive, as in the recent case of the CNN reporters fired for an inaccurately researched story.

There is a real and important difference — a difference that should not be overlooked—between serious journalism and those who are interested only in pushing an agenda, be it money, politics, or any other cause. The fact remains, however, that media is a business, whether we like it or not, and let the buyer beware.

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  • Cheryl Kniffen September 14, 2017 at 8:29 am

    Thank you for writing this story. I am hoping that we all learn from this “bystander effect”, and when we see something, we do something! In light of what one young student did to protect others yesterday at his school Washington state- he choose not be a “bystander””, in doing so- he lost his life to protect others. We also saw so much heroism with all the storms- humanity for a brief moment in time seemed unified. The Netflix piece was most helpful in getting the true story out.