Online media — the speed with which a story can now be rushed out to the public in a desperate grab for eyeballs and clicks — has to be part of this problem. At one time, there was a fairly (sometimes maddeningly) slow editorial process between street-level reportage and publication. Reporter is eyewitness to events or interviews witnesses; reporter writes story; reporter files story; editor reviews story including fact-checking and considering the paper’s legal exposure; story gets revised; story finally makes print; newspaper finally gets delivered. It was a ponderous process, but it meant that “news” was something a bit more considered that what we have now, which is (if I may quote myself) village gossip on steroids.
How to deal with this gossipy, over-excitable quality of modern media discourse is a really tough question. There are many advantages to the modern world, including the ready availability of independent video footage of events which might otherwise easily be covered up. Bullying, racist harassment, sexual harassment, political misconduct, police brutality, are all more easily exposed today than when I was young. That’s the plus side of the same ledger that gives us “viral stories” that turn out to be just village gossip.
I live in a small community, so I see village gossip (the real kind) up close and personal all the time. I see the way people often leap to believe a story because it suits their preconceptions or their social alliances, without taking the time to check multiple sources. Because “people” aren’t journalists, and juicy stories about people we don’t like are awfully tasty. But journalists — particularly big-name, reputable journalists — are supposed to be more careful, more deliberate in their research. They are not supposed to rush around delivering the latest tittle-tattle with breathless enthusiasm, without checking background information and the quality of sources.
Gossip is simple, full of good guys and bad guys and righteous disapproval. Real life is way messier and more confusing. Just because someone is indigenous doesn’t mean he’s a reliable source. Just because a bunch of white schoolboys are jerks at one moment, doesn’t mean they are jerks at another moment. Just because one video shows one slice of an event — and just because that video is authentic — doesn’t mean that it shows the whole picture. We watch movies, for heaven’s sake — we all know how camera angle can change everything.
Maybe in future we’ll need to see multiple video feeds of any given event before we think we know what happened. But for sure, our “reputable” media sources need to stop rushing to press with half-baked stories, trying desperately to scoop the other guys, engaged in a sordid race to the bottom, towards the National Enquirer standard. At the very least they should provide heavy disclaimers admitting that their sources are unverified and they do not, yet, know the whole story.