The Media and the Social Media and Us

When tragedy happens, it often brings out the best of us. As a matter of fact, it used to be that “the best of us” was all that it brought out. Americans rose up in times of trouble to help…no matter who it was. We helped other Americans, we helped Haitians, we helped towns torn apart by tornadoes, earthquakes, fires, and hurricanes. It’s who we were. I used the word “were”, past tense, because over the past year or so, as I watched tragedies like the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the destruction caused by Super Storm Sandy, and now the bombing at the Boston Marathon, it’s not who we are anymore.

Don’t get me wrong, there are enumerable examples of people doing amazing things in the minutes, hours and days immediately following those tragedies. Who is not inspired by the story of the cowboy-hatted man helping to save the life of a man who lost both legs in the explosion. The same cowboy-hatted man, who lost one son to war, almost committed suicide himself from the grief, and then lost his other son to suicide over the same grief. A true hero, and his story is not the only story of heroism in the days after the bombing in Boston. The trouble is that the immediate reactions to tragedy now include responses that are so anti-heroic as to be as sickening as the tragedies themselves.

It was college when I became enamored of the media and journalism profession. A profession that I, to this day, don’t know why I didn’t pursue. I was 8 years old when the Watergate break in happened, and just days short of 10 years old when Richard Nixon resigned because of it. When I got to college and took my first journalism class, we studied “All The President’s Men”, and I was hooked. Regardless of what other people thought about Woodward and Bernstein, they became my instant heroes. They did something important, something noble when they broke that story. Heroes without badges or guns. Certainly, I am romanticizing it. So what? At the time, 1983, it was what I wanted to do. Had I not made other bad decisions about course selection, it might have been my career path. I remember my first byline. As dull a piece as was ever written about the tuition hikes at Wittenberg University. Yawn.

Through the years, the media continued to play a big role in my life. I loved watching Peter Jennings, and Charlie Gibson. I am still a news junkie. When big things happen – 9/11, the uncontrolled Gulf Oil Spill, and a bombing at the Boston Marathon – I am glued to the TV. Now, it’s just with Diane Sawyer and Brian Williams. But things have changed over the years, and this past week, I saw the worst of it.

Part of the problem is, of course, the 24/7 news cycle. Invented in 1980 when CNN took to cable to broadcast all news, all the time. That certainly caused its own problems, like a ridiculous amount of repetition of stories in order to fill the time. There wasn’t enough news, so stories had to be repeated over and over again, each time with added details and even embellishments, or interviews from people who really had nothing to add. Little events turned into big stories.

Enter FOX News and MSNBC and the complete blurring of the lines between news and commentary. Opinions inserted into news pieces suddenly become accepted as facts, and people who dare to challenge the opinions become naysayers and partisans. News was evolving, except it was evolving away from actual news.

Enter the much younger and distant cousin of media – social media. No longer do we have to get our news at prescribed times, like the early or late edition of the paper or the 6 pm or 11 pm local news broadcasts. Cable news, gets things on the air faster. The older models are becoming a little more obsolete. Social media, however, changes the game even further. News happens and it is reported immediately via Facebook and Twitter. Everyone is journalist, with video and still cameras in our pockets 24/7. Where even under the cable news model there was a buffer. Footage had to be collected and edited, by professionals, and in some cases gatekeepers, deciding what the public should see and verifying the truth of the assertions being made. Some of the pictures that were shown from Boston were so gory that they had no business being shown. Sadly, I will never be able to remove the picture of the man with his legs blown off from my memory. Sensationalism sells.

Since the Sandy Hook Elementary Massacre, I realized how bad it has become. The first problem is that speed has become the metric by which we measure news outlets, not accuracy. There was so much bad reporting. When I tuned into the story, according to news sources, the man had shot his way into the school, killed his mother who worked there, turned the gun on kids, and then killed himself. (I have decided that I will no longer mention these murders’ names ever. They will get none of the fame they seek from me.) In the end, the killer had killed his mother at home, stolen her guns and gone to a school that he had no connection to. The media reported, and pointed readers to the killer’s Facebook page, except it wasn’t his. It was his brother’s. That’s malpractice in its purest form.That’s just one example of the worst journalism since “Dewey Defeats Truman”.

The problem with bad journalism in the social media era is that it spreads like wild fire. One person tweets or posts something that is incorrect and other people pick it up and retweet or repost it, thus adding it to their network of friends. Suddenly, the wrong information is accepted as truth because people received it from someone they trust. Actual news organizations have been using information that they get off of twitter and posting it without verifying, adding to the problem. The NY Post and then FOX News both erroneously reported that a Saudi national was in custody in the hospital after the bombing. That was not true. Commentators on networks like MSNBC posited that it was a right-wing extremist making a point on Tax Day. Also not true. Irresponsible journalism at its best. All of those “professionals” should be ashamed of themselves. But, ratings are king, and sensationalism draws viewers. We have no one to blame but ourselves.

The second huge problem with the new social media as news platform model is that opinions are more abundant than facts. Since the rise of social media I have seen a marked increase in partisan divide, and a marked decrease in decorum and common decency. Not only have I seen it, but I have participated in it. Everything has a spin. People choose their news sources based on how much the “news” supports their ideology, not based on the accuracy of information or the actual amount of truth. The more over the top, the better.

The thing is that Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and Ed Schultz and all of the other commentators on both sides of the political spectrum are paid to be over the top. They’re paid to twist the truth until only a sliver of it remains. The problem is that their methodology, their confrontational style, their anger laden diatribes are filtering down into our every day lives, and into our daily interactions with each other. I actually had to delete a Facebook post yesterday because two of my good friends from different areas of my life devolved into an angry name calling session. It was as sickening as it was unbelievable. Two grown men, emboldened by the safety of cyberspace. And that is the new norm. And we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Why should we blame ourselves? Because we eat this stuff up, and by tuning into those over the top TV and radio commentary shows, we let them know that it is acceptable. We encourage the behavior. By allowing to happen on our Facebook walls or Twitter feeds, we encourage it. By following those people who constantly fan the flames of hatred, we validate them. We’ve created this coarse and angry culture we live in, by allowing our leaders to do it to each other and by emulating the behavior. We have no one to blame but ourselves.

I am not sure what I am going to do in my own personal life to effect change. I’ll be evaluating over the coming days, weeks, months to get back to a life model where I add value, not tear things down. Social media is an incredibly powerful tool that can drive good and positive change. That can help us reconnect with people from our past lives, who were important to us then……like a fraternity brother who I haven’t seen in years and who now happens to be the Fire Chief in Watertown, Massachusetts, who I worried about all day yesterday until he took the time to respond and tell me he was alright. Isn’t that a much better use for social media? If the screaming and the belittling, and the anger continues….we have no one to blame but ourselves.