Like so many of us, I was shocked and horrified about the events in Boston last week – Monday, I worried about friends and family who might have run in/been supporting those running the Boston Marathon, and Friday I worried about all of them simply living in Boston and environs. Having lived through Sept. 11, with good friends (and family) who worked near the World Trade Center, I was terrified. That day, thanks to a friend in an Alabama militia and another in the Canadian Army, I was able to keep current via AOL Instant Messenger (the school didn’t have good tv reception, and the news websites were unable to keep up with the demand on their servers). It became part of my job that day to relay information that was as accurate as possible to the students and my colleagues, all of whom were stunned and shocked.
Flash forward to this day of Twitter, Facebook and texting and the ease of sharing information, accurate or not. As this BBC article points out, the citizen investigators “helping” the FBI got the photo ids wrong. Very wrong. (to its credit, Reddit has apologized for its role. damage is still done, though.)
It’s gone beyond sharing faked photos after Hurricane Sandy to potentially destroying a person’s life. The 24-hour news channels don’t help, either. The ratio of real news and information to speculation, outside “experts” (those nowhere near the actual events) and people-on-the-street interviews is increasing, all because the moment something like this happens we Must.Drop.Everything and watch. Obsessively.
Compare that to this clip from ABS’s coverage of the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan. It’s clear that this is raw footage, with nothing really known beyond the shooting and some people being injured. They cut into programming for nearly 10 minutes, then signed off until they knew something more:
And CNN was actually being responsible in their reporting, not wanting to spread inaccurate information.
When we have events like what happened in Boston last week, what message are we sending our students when we obsessively narrate the coverage, asking all and sundry to comment, whether or not they know anything (like the doctors serving in Congress who did a long-distance diagnosis of Terri Schiavo)? We spend time teaching about digital literacy, showing how to evaluate resources and find quality information. But do we also take the time to say “just because [news channel/reporter] says something, doesn’t mean you can check your skepticism at the door”?
Imagine how proud I was when one of my students tweeted the following:
Ok, maybe some of his classes as a journalism student at Emory also had an effect, but still, I got to him first! My hope is that more people question what they hear during these events, when information is so fluid and our knowledge of the people supplying the information is minimal
Let’s go back to the 1980s, where there still was some sense that important events needed fact-checking and gravitas, not non-stop talking heads. The way we’re going, lynch mobs attacking innocent people based on false/erroneous information and guesses will become a common event.