Outlets slander University of Alabama over non-existent China tie
Unfortunately, it looks like some media outlets are trying to give Alabamians the gift of fake news for Christmas.
It started Wednesday morning when a reporter for ABC 33/40 tweeted, “The University of Alabama is under investigation by the federal government for improper ties to China.”
Of course, the tweet did not call the ties “alleged,” “supposed” or anything else qualifying that the so-called “ties” may very well be non-existent; the reporter went straight to accepting the premise that they existed, even calling them “improper” on top of that.
As of Wednesday at 5:00 p.m. CT, the tweet had been seen by thousands, garnering 238 retweets, 634 quote tweets and 580 likes.
The same tweet thread also contained a since-deleted tweet, as well as a third tweet — posted almost two hours after the initial one — that contained a screenshot of a university statement explaining that the allegations assumed by the reporter were totally unfounded.
A simple phone call would have cleared this up for ABC 33/40, as well as other outlets like Alabama Media Group who pushed the anti-UA narrative to garner social media attention and story clicks throughout the day on Wednesday.
How do we know this?
Well, Yellowhammer News first obtained the supposed foundation for these stories early Wednesday morning: a letter from the U.S. Department of Education’s office of general counsel to University of Alabama President Dr. Stuart Bell sent on Tuesday. The letter cites the English language version of the website (dated 2016) of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which lists the University of Alabama under educational partnerships in the U.S. The Dept. of Education, citing only that listing as the basis for the letter, warned UA that failing to disclose such a partnership would be in violation of federal law. The letter further asked a litany of questions involving the alleged partnership.
Yellowhammer News immediately checked with the university after examining the letter and received a detailed explanation that cleared UA of the reason for the investigation. The university had been informed of that website listing earlier this year.
“At that time, we reviewed any possible related institutional records to determine the basis for the reference,” UA advised in a statement. ”We found no ties or connection between UA and WIV, and no reason for UA to be listed on the website. University officials reached out to WVI to question the reference and requested the UA reference on the website be removed, but never received a response. We have relayed this information to the Department of Education.”
This is a non-story, but other outlets thought they could get clicks out of it, so they did; unfortunately, it’s also a story where the charge will always receive significantly more attention than the acquittal. In legal terms, the story’s publication was more prejudicial than probative, but that seems to be par for the course in the media nowadays.
The university’s statement tweeted by ABC 33/40’s reporter, for example, received less than a tenth of the attention that the initial tweet did.
The outlet’s headline is total clickbait, too: “University of Alabama under investigation by Department of Education.”
Then, of course, we come to Alabama Media Group, whose headline on its article reads, “Feds investigate link between University of Alabama, China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
Again, the publication begins by accepting the premise that there is a “link” at all. The first paragraph of the article does the same thing, but the real damage will be done to the majority of the site’s viewers who only will see the headline and will never proceed to the university statement buried in the story that clears up the allegation.
For a publication that has consistently (and often, maliciously) beat up on the university — including this year over returning to campus in the fall, which was also necessary for the Crimson Tide to play this season — this would seem to be mission accomplished, especially since national outlets will gobble up their original coverage fact-free.
Contrast ABC 33/40’s and Alabama Media Group’s handling of the situation with WBRC, for example; that network’s headline accurately and responsibly reads, “University of Alabama says there was no partnership with Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
At the end of the day, irresponsible and misleading reporting that denigrates institutions like UA hurts people across the Yellowhammer State. The University of Alabama alone has an annual economic impact of more than $2.9 billion; across its footprint, the UA System’s economic impact rises to more than $10 billion per year.
Wednesday could end up being a costly day for the state of Alabama, and this easily could have — and should have — been avoided.
Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn