Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Friday, September 20, 2013

We have to catch that guy...not

I'm not sure whether the Information Age calls for a new standard of journalism, or a rededication to the old ones. I'm prompted, of course, by the persistence in the face of the evidence of  a "second shooter" in connection with the D.C. Navy Yard shootings. There was even a third shooter for a while, but it was the second shooter who had legs.

This might be plausible except that a certain segment of the public, encouraged by a certain segment of the media, has been looking for second shooters since 1963. The example of the Kennedy assassination ought to inspire caution, not more conspiracy "theories."

Three principles of journalism feed this phenomenon:

  • Creating sensation in order to sell
  • Getting the news first at any cost
  • Reporters gather facts. Editors and columnists think.
These principles trip over one another all the time. They always have, but the shrinking of the news cycle to zero has accelerated the conflict.

The first time electronic technology had a similar impact on news gathering followed the introduction of the telegraph, and the same things happened. "Send news," one Civil War-era editor demanded of a correspondent. "And when there is no news, send rumors." Sound familiar?  Then as now, the first two of those principles of journalism rode down the fact-gathering function of reporters, and the thinking function of editors.

In the absence of any idea of gathering facts or, at least, attributing statements from which one may deduce facts, rumour-mongering takes over. It is not much of a stretch to think that the second shooters in the Navy Yard and at Newtown began with uncorroborated statements from harried law enforcement personnel, who may not even be authorised to speak. That fueled endless false alarms after the Marathon bombing. When one outlet gets such a story, the rest repeat it without checking it out. As in the kid's game of gossip, the details leap in unbidden. It is not until the layers produce an increasingly dubious picture (as in an angry middle-age white man backing up an angry young black man) that some editor actually exercises the little grey cells and says "hey, wait a minute." It took the New York Times and the Washington Post almost the whole day to reach that point yesterday. The critical faculty didn't kick in for most media until overnight. One imagines a press briefing in the wee hours in which police spokespeople had just about to jump and down and scream "No second shooter! NO SECOND SHOOTER!!" We here in Boston were treated to several such spectacles in the post-bombinmg days.

We should all learn from this repeated idiocy: but we don't.