Part of what has inspired my recent reflections on how and where we get information is a developing news story that involves someone I vaguely know. Without going into details, I will say that the story is a sad one, and unfortunately there are many questions that we won’t get the answers to anytime soon, if ever. But even being two or three degrees removed, I have enough of an “insider’s” perspective to know that the media coverage can’t be taken at face value. Skewed wording, contradictory reporting, and flat-out misinformation. Each individual error is relatively small and forgivable — some are even well-intentioned — but added up they paint a worrisome picture.
It reminds me that we, the general public, cannot be content to believe everything that we read or hear. We must remember to take things with a grain salt, and ask questions when things don’t make sense.
It reminds me just how dependent we are on these news outlets* — whether printed on paper, broadcast on TV, or transmitted online. This relationship hinges on trust, on mutual respect for the journalistic process and integrity. Fragile things that work until they don’t, easily taken for granted or abused.
It reminds me of another time that I was close to a controversial news story. Much, much closer than I am now. Zero degrees removed. The story of my senior year of high school is a long one (probably a novel someday, no joke) but despite the nearly ten years that have passed since then, I can still recall with vivid emotional clarity how frustrating it was to have one’s own life publicly misrepresented, manipulated, mangled. How small and powerless I felt, yet ironically standing in a spotlight, trapped under a microscope.
And it reminds me most of all of our common humanity. How fallible, and how noble, people can be. How much we’re capable of doing, both ugly and beautiful. How we often come together when something threatens to tear us apart. How we are driven by a need for justice and truth, though we are sometimes blinded by (or blind to) those very things.
*”Common man reporting” via Twitter, blogs, etc., can provide a sort of check-and-balance on traditional news outlets. People “on the ground” can instantly broadcast their mobile photos and eye-witness accounts — and even more valuable than any one individual’s testimony is the conglomeration of them all. Facts emerge as patterns.
But just as easily as information is spread, so is misinformation. People jump to conclusions, often without the background knowledge needed to make them in the first place. And like a bad game of Telephone, things usually become more distorted with each transmission.
So democratized journalism is no more foolproof than the traditional kind. Everything above still applies.