Not Exactly Cronkite

During college, I worked as a bank teller. Obviously, that position requires some very specific training, including how to remember details when witnessing any criminal activity in the bank. During the week-long training class, around lunch time, a man walked into our class and presented something to the instructor. He said very little to her, did not address the class at all, and then left the room. About an hour later, in the middle of the lesson on how to handle a bank robbery, we were asked to provide a description of the man who’d entered the room. There were roughly thirty people in the classroom and not one of us produced a description good enough for a sketch artist to draw a likely representation. We were in a safe, well-lit room, experiencing no stress or duress. Yet, we could not remember enough to convict our would-be criminal.

I’ve never forgotten that lesson. It taught me to always look people in the eyes and to focus in on my environment when I’m in unfamiliar surroundings. But what if I was in the middle of the street, amid chaos? What if the man I try to remember later had a gun to my head?

The human mind is an amazing organ capable of billions of instructions per second. It’s performing tasks that keep us alive without any instruction, at all. But the minute you create extreme stress, the mind takes on a series of tasks specific to stress response. The emotion centers become so overactive that normal brain function, like short term memory, is adversely affected.

So, imagine you think yourself the reigning rapid-reporter; that you’re on a street corner and you see what you believe is a crime and without thinking you record on your cell phone video of a homeless man snuggling in a new coat. Then you post that video and before long, hundreds and then thousands of people have commented and vilified that man for stealing someone’s coat. Only, Mr. Rapid-Reporter, you don’t know that that man has just visited a shelter that gives away gently used coats and for the first time in many months, he’s wearing something more than a threadbare rag.

The problem with Mr. Rapid-Reporter is that, sadly, he never has all of the facts or the 360 degree view of the circumstances. Yet, he fancies himself qualified to provide the world with news through the myopic lens of his phone. And worst yet, he reports on things only he finds interesting, which is why, very often, our Twitter feeds are filled with 140-character blips about dickheads, in bulk, at 4G speeds.

It’s demoralizing and depressing to see the kinds of things that become news before all of the facts are available. Many times, we find that those details that Mr. Rapid-Reporter provided didn’t begin to tell the real story, but by the time actual reporters have had a chance to write their pieces, the court of public opinion has already decided guilt, and punishment.

So, what is this doing to real journalism?

Well, firstly, it’s creating an environment where news providers are competing for the fast break and foregoing procedures that ensure accuracy. Who has time for fact-checking when you’re trying to beat Mr. Rapid-Reporter to the news desk? We complain and complain that news agencies and media outlets are reporting bad information, but we want it faster and faster. WE are the problem. Yes, that’s right. The “want it right away and cheap” concept applies even to our journalism. Why should news organizations have to pay good money to experienced, professional journalists when they can simply use Mr. Rapid-Reporter’s free cell phone video? What? The video is missing key facts that happened before or after the moment in question? What? Mr. Rapid-Reporter has a personal bias? Wait? He was involved in the situation? Well, we’re sorry, we’ll get it right the next time. In the meantime, the fever has passed and very few will ensure that they get more than what Vox or Twitter has provided.

I think it boils down to the human tendency toward gossip. Before, such behavior was relegated to a small circle reachable via local telephone calls. Now, it’s global, and instantaneous. People cannot easily perceive how the “tweet heard ’round the world” has a ripple effect on many, many lives, sometimes, millions. Humans simply can’t resist gossip and the “I was the first” rush. Just look at the number of people who “announce” news on their Facebook feeds like no one else already knows. The day Leonard Nimoy (may he rest in peace) died, my feed was nothing but the same announcement for two hours straight. Oh, and I’m not referring to opinions or comments about the event. I mean simply links and announcements. Hundreds of them. The day of the Boston Marathon bombing, I had to shut down my computer and walk away because people posted the SAME news bites, over and over and over. I could not escape it or think of anything else.

Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t that I don’t want to know about current events, but why does Mr. Rapid-Reporter feel that he is at all qualified to present news in sound bites, filtered through his emotional reaction to the circumstances? Why is it that we as a society have become so inured to misinformation that we’ve simply become to accept it as tolerable?

Can we make the decision to be more selective with that we tweet, post or share? Can we possibly return to the days when we demanded good reporting and were willing to not only wait for it, but also pay for the privilege? Will there ever be a time when journalists such as Uncle Walt and Murrow reign supreme again? Or is Mr. Rapid-Reporter going to gain more traction and ensure that we’ll never be able to trust anything we read, ever again?

On a final note, I think it’s very telling that bloggers are now more trusted than news sources. I think that speaks volumes on how the individual, a “known” has more journalistic clout than the mainstream media. The problem with that, of course, is that bloggers may not be any more likely to fact check. I do, because I hate getting egg on my face. But there are plenty out there who don’t. Although, I admit, the blogs I follow in my reader seem pretty well checked. Does that credit me as a discerning reader, as well? I like to think so.

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