When news of the unthinkable comes, we all head for the front stoop. Today, that stoop is virtual, and the digital neighbors with whom we share the news of the moment communicate with us via tweets, status updates, and hastily-tapped texts. We whisper in ears, we shout towards rooftops, we tell each other what we think and feel, and what we’ve heard.
Did you hear the shooter’s name was Ryan? Isn’t it shocking that his mother worked at the school where the shootings took place? Can you believe that she was the teacher in the classroom where all those kids were killed?
Things get emotional on that stoop. Guesses become facts. Hunches become certainties. Details are shared with such adamance that they are accompanied by proclamations of their broader meaning in the grand scheme of things. We’re well on to metaphors before we know what actually happened.
It’s always been that way out here on the stoop. We need a place to be together now and we can worry about being right later. Our digital gathering is more crowded than its analog precursor, but it’s still, at the core, the same basic conversation. We know the rules. It’s not a newsroom. It’s not the whole story. We inherently get that all the supposed facts and assumed truths delivered in this forum and in the heat of the moment should be taken with a grain (if not a pillar) of salt.
Historically, we’ve expected that once the din of theories, hypotheses, and manufactured realities had quieted, we could count on getting the real story (or at least part of it) when we heard the thump of the morning paper landing at the foot of that stoop. But these days, the thumping starts right away. Instead of patiently correcting the mistakes and hearsay understandably spewed by the emotion-filled masses, the mainstream media has joined the fray. The thump no longer clarifies, it obscures.
This is the shooter’s name. Thump. His mother worked at the elementary school. Thump. She was the teacher in that classroom where are those poor kids were killed. Thump. Thump. Thump.
As you’d expect, the various bits of false details about the Newtown shootings spread rapidly throughout our virtual front stoop. But they didn’t originate there. These “facts” were coming from (or at least being repeated by) the media sources most of us have come to trust the most. Instead of correcting our hyperactive distortions, the mainstream media added to them by mimicking the haste and inaccuracy of social media. The wildfire of burning inaccuracies needed to be doused by a pail of water. Instead we got a bucket of gasoline.
We’ve seen this trend coming. Gabrielle Giffords was prematurely pronounced dead after being shot in Arizona. Both CNN and Fox got the Supreme Court’s ruling on health care’s individual mandate exactly wrong. The standards once applied to reporting are now often reserved for correction writing.
While these mistakes were symptoms of the same disease — the mainstream media’s race to keep pace with the digital conversation — they were more understandable than what we saw in the Newtown coverage. When a member of Congress is shot, the lede will be whether or not she survived. The headline in a Supreme Court story needs to contain news of what they decided.
In the case of Newtown, we already knew the basic facts. The brutal and unforgettable lede was already written. If you tell me that a lunatic killed twenty kids in an elementary school, that gives me enough to process for a while. I can wait a few minutes or a few hours (or even a few days) to learn about the details about the shooter’s psyche or his relationship with his deceased mother. But these days, it seems, no one producing news can wait.
But someone has to wait. Little value for journalists or their readership is created in the race to be first. We need a media that races to be right. We expect the news to be the first rough draft of history. But it can’t be this rough. In an era of accelerating and always-on information moving at the speed of Twitter, where clarity and accuracy are the rare exceptions, we find ourselves counting on news professionals more than ever. The job is critical. But it can’t be accomplished unless journalists rise above the din instead of getting sucked into it. They need to get off our stoop.
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