This may be beating a dead horse at this point, but I’ve had something on my mind the last few weeks that I want to talk about.
Before we get into this, let me say I’m not mad (er, not that mad). I’m actually really encouraged. For the last three years, I’ve been operating under the assumption that “journalistic integrity” is an archaic, outdated notion that people in the 21st century couldn’t care less about — one so useless it required me to use semi-sarcastic quotes just now. I’m still not sure whether the people that were up in arms last week were actually concerned about transparency in news or if they just needed something to dispense all their anger into, but the fact that we, as one big society, are even talking about issues that I’ve always assumed were confined to first-year journalism classes is a really happy thing for me.
In the last week, there’s been a lot of discussion about bad reporting. I’m sure you’ve all heard about it by now. The most famous gaffes were, first, the Post’s stomach-turning cover story, and CNN’s factual trip-ups and rampant speculation that, in the end, only served to clog the information highway.
And pretty soon, hatin’ on “the media,” whomever that may be, became the cool thing to do. I didn’t really understand why at first. I had been watching CNN on the night of the bombings, and it seemed to me that CNN was just being CNN. I mean, they’ve been on the air for over 30 years; I figured everybody knew by now that taking tiny bits of news and streeeetching them into deformity is just how they do.
Instead, a darkening cloud started to gather on the social networks. Along with trying to make other people feel guilty about caring “too much” about Boston while there were so many other tragedies going on that week (because duh, it’s just not possible to care about more than one horrible thing at a time), blaming the media for all of this country’s evils became the theme of the week. Seemingly overnight, people became outraged that CNN would speculate and then backtrack (because, you know, they’ve never done that before. Yes, that was sarcasm), and that the Post, a notoriously sleazy tabloid, would go so far as to libel someone.
Still, I ended up taking it personally. Though I’m not in the arena of strict news-bringing myself, I was brought up in that field and couldn’t help but feel like, when people were throwing around that catchall phrase “the media,” they meant me as well.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t understand why everyone was upset. There were a lot of mistakes made that week. In fact, I’m not even really comfortable calling them “mistakes” — it was misinformation delivered as truth, and I think we can all agree that that’s not cool. But still, I was surprised that people suddenly expected the stupid to suddenly stop being stupid, and it bummed me out that so many people I know and respect used a few embarrassing incidents from outlets that have long and well-recorded histories of embarrassing incidents as an excuse to condemn all media outlets everywhere. As happy as I was to see the general public taking an interest in something I care about, it really surprised me that so many people, people that I know to be smart and sensible, rushed to place blame — which, when you think about it, is kind of what they were damning the media for doing in the first place.
Granted, the biggest of the mistakes made that week went far beyond something that would require a ‘we regret the error’ the next day. But, having been on the other side of things, the week’s events also left me thinking about just how amazingly easy it is to fuck up facts, even on a slow news day.
I remember learning about how to deal with errors when I was in journalism school. I’m not going to say I was sure that it would never happen to me, but I do remember making a clear decision to only half-listen to the lectures about it, because I, of course, would never have to worry much about making mistakes. I was going to be a magazine journalist, and make my living writing things like artist Q&As and essays about pivotal albums of the ’60s. Not interviewing drug dealers and then being hassled by the feds to hand over my sources. Clearly, I didn’t need to commit any of it to memory because, not only were the stakes never going to be that high for me, I just couldn’t imagine ever playing so fast and loose with facts. The only way I could see myself committing a horrific factual screw-up was through some complex chain of circumstances that I had absolutely no control over.
Before I was even out of school, I had already fucked up once. In writing a feature about a band, I had interviewed a fan of theirs, and wrote the word “Texas” in my notes a little too close to a statement about the first time she had seen the band in concert. When I went to write the story, I wrote that her first concert experience of them was in Texas — it wasn’t. She had simply told me that she had moved here from Texas.
I was absolutely shocked with myself. How could I be so careless? Why didn’t I double-check that? I apologized to her and changed the story, and vowed to myself to be more careful about taking notes from now on. And to start using a digital recorder
The next time was much, much worse. I interviewed a man who hosted a TV show about cheesy horror films from the ’50s and ’60s. The show sometimes aired on public television stations. I knew that — the reason I knew about him was because I had stumbled across his show late at night on the San Jose PBS channel. Still, in the final draft, I mistakenly stated his show had aired on “public-access television.”
He was livid, and rightfully so — there’s a big difference between public television and public-access television. Once again, I was angry with myself. Especially because I couldn’t even figure out how I ended up writing that. Not only had I read my draft a million, billion, zillion times over, I knew for a fact that what I had meant to say was public television. It scared me that I could fuck up so royally and not even notice when I did. Once again, I apologized and changed it.
Most recently I confused Switzerland and Sweden, as I am wont to do. Along with Guillermo del Toro and Benicio del Toro, Switzerland and Sweden are two things I constantly mix up — every time I walk into Ikea, I am saying Switzerland when I mean to say Sweden. The band I was writing about was made up of two women, one from Hamburg, the other from Zurich. Though I knew where Zurich was and that “Switzerland” always follows it in name, I went ahead and made a pun about their performance at the Swedish-American Hall and off to press it went.
However, the difference here is I’ve never done it intentionally. Again, I’m not really in a field that requires me to corroborate facts very often, but it’s deflating and disappointing when people make mistakes almost on purpose, like the ones that were made last week. It’s embarrassing for all of us in the big bad media.
At the same time, having been on the other side of things, I do sort of understand the motivation to make mistakes; accuracy be damned. I do think it’s important to remember that there are people behind every story you read (though I hear robots are on the way), and not all of them are great, upstanding journalists like in the days of old. And there’s a few simple reason for that: one is straight-up carelessness, the other is time. In the face of social media, there’s more pressure on writers than ever before to get the information out fast, fast, fast, before the great game of Twitter telephone distorts it. Sometimes, in the rush to get news out, 1st, 2nd and 3rd confirmations fall by the wayside. Realistically, you can have your news done fast or done right. Today’s audience wants both, and you know what? In 2013, it’s actually not unreasonable to ask for both. I just think, going forward, it’s important to consider what might happen if we start to expect both.
But in 2013, we also tend to move on pretty quickly — Dove might have implied that beauty is the key to happiness in their new ad campaign? OMG WHAT THAT’S SO UNFAIR I’M GOING TO…Oh hey look, a cat dressed as a shark — and this is one thing I actually hope we don’t dump in favor of a new distraction. But if we go through with this whole holding-the-press-accountable thing, we’re also going to have to start holding up our end of the bargain when it comes to interpreting news, and that starts with not believing everything you read on Facebook…even if it is news. If it sounds shady, it probably is. If what you’re reading is consistently shady, find somewhere else to get your news.
So what am I saying here? Am I saying the egregious errors made during the Boston bombings should be overlooked? Absolutely not. Should we accept that, with the speed at which news travels these days, information is invariably going to get muddled? Nope. Am I saying we should never question the media? Fuck no, question that shit! I’m saying, first and foremost, if you want thorough, thoughtful reporting, don’t watch CNN and don’t read the Post. They are not representative of the entire news media, and quite frankly, it worries me that so many people didn’t realize that.
What I’m saying is that I hope, in the future, people won’t pass such sweeping judgment. The next time this happens (because who am I kidding, it will happen again), I’m hoping people won’t toss around phrases like “the media” and “fucking journos” so loosely, and thus attribute a few sloppy mistakes made by individual reporters to the news community as a whole. Though I know a lot of people don’t like it this way, the fact of the matter is that news is just like any other industry: there are people who are just out to get your money (or to get you to click on that sensational headline), and there are people who actually care about the product they make and the audience they serve. For every well-publicized screw-up, there are a lot of reporters who, believe it or not, actually give a crap about getting it right.