Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 8:09 PM UTC

Arizona shootings: Take a slow-news approach

We need to wait for facts in fast-breaking news events; jumping to conclusions doesn't help

(This is an updated excerpt from my new book, Mediactive. Material from this post originally appeared in my Mediactive blog in November, 2009).

Like so many other people today, I’ve been following the news about horrific events in Tucson, Ariz., where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat, is one of a number of shooting victims. As I write this, it’s not known how many have died. And as I write this, news reports say that Giffords is in surgery, in critical condition.

The reports from traditional news organizations, amplified by Twitter, blogs and other Internet media, have been a parade of unclear information — just what we’ve come to expect in such situations. CNN’s headline now reads “Congresswoman Giffords shot” — with a sub-headline saying, “There are conflicting reports on whether she has died.” No kidding: One of those conflicting reports was CNN’s own report, citing an unnamed sources, that Giffords had died. (UPDATE: See Regret the Error’s Craig Silverman’s exhaustive compilation of Big Media misstatements, from which I grabbed the above screenshot of NPR’s mis-reporting of Giffords’ condition.)

As to motive: We don’t know yet whether the shootings were in any way political. We do know that Giffords was the object of vicious right-wing verbal attacks during the 2010 campaign. But until we know more, we should not make a direct connection between the shootings and the right-wing fury — though it was, and remains, perfectly appropriate to condemn the aggressive, even violent rhetoric.

What we need to do is slow down. I posted this on Twitter an hour ago: “Please, everyone, wait for genuine info before jumping to conclusions about Arizona murders. Take a #slownews approach.”

***

It all reminds me of what happened on Nov. 5, 2009, in the minutes and hours after an Army officer opened fire on his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, the media floodgates opened in the now-standard way. A torrent of news reports and commentary poured from the scene, the immediate community and the Pentagon, amplified by corollary data, informed commentary and rank speculation from journalists, bloggers, podcasters, Tweeters, texters and more.

Also standard in this age of fast news was the quality of the early information: utterly unreliable and mostly wrong. The shooter was dead; no he wasn’t. There were two accomplices; no there weren’t. And so on.

Several critics tore into a soldier who was using Twitter, a service noted for rumors, to post about what she was seeing. Indeed, some of what the soldier posted turned out to be wrong. But was it fair to extrapolate this to brand all forms of citizen media as untrustworthy and voyeuristic?

There was plenty of wrong information going around that day, at all levels of media. Lots of people quoted President Obama’s admonition to wait for the facts, but almost no one followed it. And almost no one heeded Army Gen. George William Casey Jr.’s advice the following Sunday not to jump to conclusions “based on little snippets of information that come out.”

Greg Marx at the Columbia Journalism Review was among several commentators to catalog some of the misinformation that raced around. He wrote:

It’s not fair to lay too much of this confusion at the feet of [traditional media] reporters, who are mostly diligent and conscientious, who are basing their claims in good faith on what they are hearing from their sources, and who are under tremendous competitive pressure to get the story first. But on a story like this, tendencies toward error, exaggeration, and inconsistency are built into the system, at least in the first days of reporting. In due time, a clearer picture will begin to emerge; in this case, we’ll even hear from the shooter himself.

There will be plenty of time for analysis. Until then, let’s all take a deep breath.

***

Like many other people who’ve been burned by believing too quickly, I’ve learned to put almost all of what journalists call “breaking news” into the category of gossip or, in the words of a scientist friend, “interesting if true.” That is, even though I gobble up “the latest” from a variety of sources, the sooner after the actual event the information appears, the more I assume it’s unreliable, if not false.

Still, I’m no different from everyone else in a key respect: When it comes to important (or sometimes trivial but interesting) breaking news, I, too, can react in almost Pavlovian ways from time to time, clicking the Refresh button on the browser again and again. I don’t tend to immediately email my friends and family or tweet about unconfirmed reports, though, and if I do pass along interesting tidbits I always make it a point to add “if true” to the might-be-news.

What is it about breaking news that causes us to turn off our logical brains? Why do we turn on the TV or click-click-click Refresh or scan the Twitter feeds to get the very latest details—especially when we learn, again and again, that the early news is so frequently wrong?

Ethan Zuckerman, a friend and colleague at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has some ideas:

  • The media make us do it. [As noted below, I give a lot of credence to this one.]
  • We’re bored.
  • Knowing the latest, even if it’s wrong, helps build social capital in conversations.
  • We’re junkies for narrative, and we always hope that we’ll get the fabled “rest of the story” by clicking one more time.

“I suspect there’s some truth to each of those explanations, and I suspect that each is badly incomplete,” Ethan says. “I also suspect that figuring out what drives our patterns of news consumption, and our susceptibility to fast, often-wrong news is critical” for having a sounder grasp of what we can trust.

Remember: Big breaking stories are literally exciting. They’re often about death or the threat of death, or they otherwise create anxiety. Neurological research shows that the more of your personal bandwidth anxiety takes up, the less clearly you think. To get even more neurological: The amygdala takes over from the prefrontal cortex.

Slowing the News

A wonderful trend has emerged in the culinary world, called the “slow food movement”—a rebellion against fast food and all the ecological and nutritional damage it causes.

As Ethan suggested to me at a Berkman Center retreat in late 2009, we need a “slow news” equivalent. Slow news is all about taking a deep breath.

One of society’s recently adopted clichés is the “24-hour news cycle”—a recognition that, for people who consume and create news via digital systems, the newspaper-a-day version of journalism has passed into history. Now, it’s said, we get news every hour of every day, and media creators work tirelessly to fill those hours with new stuff. (Happily, a few newspapers and magazines do continue to provide actual perspective and nuance.)

That 24-hour news cycle itself needs further adjustment, though. Even an hourly news cycle is too long; in an era of live-TV police chases, Twitter and twitchy audiences, the latest can come at any minute. Call it the 1,440-minute news cycle.

Rapid-fire news is about speed, and being speedy serves two main purposes for the provider. The first is gratification of the desire to be first. Humans are competitive, and in journalism newsrooms, scoops are a coin of the realm.

The second imperative is attracting an audience. Being first draws a crowd, and crowds can be turned into influence, money, or both. Witness cable news channels’ desperate hunt for “the latest” when big events are under way, even though the latest is so often the rankest garbage.

The urge to be first applies not just to those disseminating the raw information (which, remember, is often wrong) that’s the basis for breaking news. It’s also the case, for example, for the blogger who offers up the first sensible-sounding commentary that puts the “news” into perspective. The winners in the online commentary derby—which is just as competitive, though played for lower financial stakes—are the quick and deft writers who tell us what it all means. That they’re often basing their perspectives on falsehoods and inaccuracies seems to matter less than that they’re early to comment.

I’m not battling human nature. We all want to know what’s going on, and the bigger the calamity is, the more we want to know—especially if it may affect us directly (if a hurricane is approaching, the latest news is not just interesting but potentially life-saving). Nothing is going to change that, and nothing should.

Nor is this a new phenomenon. Speculation has passed for journalism in all media eras. Every commercial plane crash, for example, is followed by days of brazen hypothesizing by so-called experts, but now we are fed their ideas at hourly (or briefer) intervals, rather than only on the evening news or in the daily paper—and even that frequency was too much. Only months of actual investigation by the real experts—and sometimes not even that—will reveal the real truth, but we are nevertheless subjected to endless new theories and rehashings of the “facts.”

The New News Cycle

The advent of the 1,440-minute news cycle (or should we call it the 86,400-second news cycle?), which has fed our apparently insatiable appetite for something new to talk about, should literally give us pause. Again and again, we’ve seen that initial assumptions can be grossly untrustworthy.

Consider, for example, the Fort Hood shootings. We learned that the perpetrator wasn’t killed during his rampage, contrary to what was initially reported. And that fact stayed with us because the story was still fresh enough, and the saturation coverage was ongoing, when reports emerged that he hadn’t been shot dead by law enforcement.

However, we all also “know” false things that were inaccurately reported and then later disproved, in part because journalists typically don’t report final outcomes with the same passion and prominence that they report the initial news. We’ve all seen videos of dramatic arrests of people who were later acquitted, but still had their reputations shattered thanks to the inherent bias in crime reporting. And how many of us have heard a report that such-and-such product or behavior has been found to raise the risk of cancer, but never heard the follow-up that said the initial report was either inaccurate or misleading?

The abundance of wrong information in the rapid-fire news system has other causes than simple speed, including the decline of what’s supposed to be a staple of journalism: fact checking before running with a story.

As Clay Shirky (who contributed this book’s foreword) has observed—in a Twitter tweet, no less—“fact-checking is way down, and after-the-fact checking is way WAY up.”

Clay’s point lends weight to the argument for slow news; to the idea that we all might be wise to think before we react. That is what many of us failed to do during the early hours and days of the “#amazonfail” event of April 2009. As Clay described it afterwards:

After an enormous number of books relating to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered (LGBT) themes lost their Amazon sales rank, and therefore their visibility in certain Amazon list and search functions, we participated in a public campaign, largely coordinated via the Twitter keyword #amazonfail (a form of labeling called a hashtag) because of a perceived injustice at the hands of that company, an injustice that didn’t actually occur.

Like Clay, I came to believe that Amazon hadn’t deliberately made a political decision to reduce the visibility of these books; it was, the company said (as part of an inept PR handling of the situation), a programming error. But I was one of the people who flamed Amazon (in which I own a small amount of stock) before I knew the full story. I hope I learned a lesson.

I rely in large part on gut instincts when I make big decisions, but my gut only gives me good advice when I’ve immersed myself in the facts about things that are important. This suggests not just being skeptical—the first of the principles I hope you’ll embrace—but also waiting for persuasive evidence before deciding what’s true and what’s not.

It comes down to this: As news accelerates faster and faster, you should be slower to believe what you hear, and you should look harder for the coverage that pulls together the most facts with the most clarity about what’s known and what’s speculation. Wikipedia, that sometimes maligned mega-encyclopedia, can be a terrific place to start.

Can we persuade ourselves to take a deep breath, slow down and dig deeper as a normal part of our media use, and to deploy the other principles of media consumption to figure out what we can trust and what we can’t? We can. And if we want to have any reason to trust what we read (hear, etc.), we’d better.

(I’ll be discussing these and other topics next Wednesday in Washington at the New America Foundation. More on that event here.)