Why did news outlets widely misreport this incident?

Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash.

Following the collapse of the Key Bridge,” NBC Washington News correspondent Adam Tuss asked seriously on Friday: “How comfortable are you when it comes to the safety of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland?”

“Maryland plans to rebuild the Francis Scott Key Bridge in just over four years at an estimated cost between $1.7 billion and $1.9 billion, a state transportation official said Thursday,” began the latest news report on March incident in which the Francis Scott Key Bridge was damaged.

“As salvage efforts continue, authorities also announced late Wednesday they had recovered the body of a fifth person who was missing after the bridge’s March 26 collapse, which shut down the port of Baltimore, one of the busiest ports in the country,” added Tuss for NBC Washington.

Trouble is, the Francis Scott Key Bridge didn’t just collapse — the bridge was struck by a massive cargo ship.

But it’s hard to tell that from the media coverage. News story after news story headlined the incident in the same way: Collapse, collapse, collapse.

6 Construction Workers Presumed Dead,” announced Time Magazine on March 26, 2024. “Baltimore Bridge Collapse: What to Know.

Baltimore bridge collapse: at least six missing as Biden laments ‘terrible accident,’” Ashifa Kassam and Chris Michael for The Guardian on March 26.

Coast Guard says finding survivors unlikely after Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse,” NBC News. March 26, 2024.

What we know about the Baltimore bridge collapse,” Associated Press on March 30, 2024.

Baltimore’s tragic bridge collapse is a test for American leadership,” the Washington Post on March 26, 2024.

While outlets were quick to condemn “misinformation” about the cargo ship collision, calling it a “bridge collapse” in headline after headline didn’t appear to bother them at all.

In fact, some progressive outlets took the opportunity to take shots at favored targets like Elon Musk and conservatives in general.

Misinformation runs rampant after Baltimore bridge collapse,” misinformed Axios on March 26, 2024. “The overnight collapse of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge drove a surge in online conspiracy theories Tuesday, many of them promoted by ‘verified’ accounts with huge followings on X.”

“Why it matters: Rampant misinformation during mass casualty events is not a new phenomenon,” continued Axios loftily. “But under Elon Musk’s ownership of X, the platform has changed from an essential real-time news source to a breeding ground for conspiracy theories.”

Baltimore’s economy has been humming,” wrote Bryan Mena for CNN on April 2, 2024, apparently aiming to doubly misinform readers. “Then a bridge collapsed.

Unfounded conspiracy theories spread online after Baltimore bridge collapse,” scoffed NBC News. “Major news events — like the pandemic, natural disasters and mass shootings — now consistently serve as fodder for fringe figures.”

Right-Wingers Are Already Pushing Conspiracy Theories About Baltimore Bridge Collapse,” Ryan Bort jeered for Rolling Stone on March 26, 2024. “The city’s mayor called the incident ‘an unthinkable tragedy.’ Conservatives see it as a chance to bash Biden and float baseless conspiracies.”

The Baltimore bridge collapse gave conspiracy theorists a chance to boost themselves,” panned Shannon Bond for NPR on March 27, 2024.

The MAGA world’s bridge conspiracies highlight an incredibly dark reality,” mocked MSNBC’s Charlie Sykes on March 27, 2024. “Tuesday’s tragedy was just another horrifying day in the perverse MAGA universe.”

A List of Weird Stuff the Right Connected to the Baltimore Bridge Collapse,” joked Arianna Coghill for Mother Jones on March 26, 2024. “Covid lockdowns?”

Fox’s Maria Bartiromo is attempting to link the Francis Scott Key bridge’s collapse to the ‘wide open border,” mocked The Intellectualist on X.

Baltimore Bridge Collapse Sparks Baseless Attack Theories,” declared Barron’s in the immediate aftermath of the cargo ship crash, branding anyone still confused as to the reason a seemingly sound — that is, sailable — seagoing vessel unexpectedly crashed into a bridge — a “Conspiracy theorist.”

The lack of curiosity in the press as to how such an event could occur — and indeed, if other such accidents might occur —and the total credulity with which it greets each official statement is deeply troubling.

In the wealth of media coverage about the barge crash, it being branded, again and again a “bridge collapse” is a bit misleading, at best.

At worst, it is a deliberate, calculated and coordinated effort to downplay this incident by branding anyone questioning it a “MAGA right-wing conspiracy nut.”

Initially at least, coverage was more straightforward — and honest.

Baltimore Bridge Collapses After Being Struck by Cargo Ship in ‘Mass Casualty’ Event,” Kirsty Hatcher and Escher Walcott informed readers of People Magazine on March 26, 2024. “The vessel struck the Francis Key Scott Bridge in the early hours of Tuesday morning.”

Six presumed dead after cargo ship crash levels Baltimore bridge,” Julia Jester, Patrick Smith, Phil Helsel and Corky Siemaszko for NBC News on March 26, 2024. “The six vanished after the Francis Scott Key Bridge disintegrated from the impact of a container ship that struck it early Tuesday. A search is now a recovery effort, officials said.”

Cargo ship lost power before colliding with Baltimore bridge; 6 presumed dead,” Melissa Alonso, Lauren Mascarenhas, and Jack Forrest for CNN on March 26, 2024.

Actual journalism on the cargo ship crash has been few and far between:

Would California bridges stand up to a direct hit? We asked experts,” Jenny Jarvie, Grace Toohey, and Rachel Uranga for the LA Times on March 26, 2024.

Three ships have hit bridges in different countries — in just three months. Should we be worried?” Jessie Yeung, CNN. March 27, 2024.

Cargo ship that hit Baltimore bridge was involved in Antwerp collision in 2016,” Chris Michael, The Guardian. March 26, 2024. “The Dali was reportedly detained in Belgium after scraping side of quay and significantly damaging part of hull in good weather.”

Cargo ship had engine maintenance in port before it collided with Baltimore bridge, officials say,” Lea Skene and Brian Witte for the Associated Press on March 28, 2024.

But the overwhelming majority of sloppy reporting on this incident is one of the many reasons there are so many “conspiracy theorists” today.

When no one trusts the press, people are bound to go looking for answers elsewhere. Major media outlets have no one but themselves to blame.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)