Today was the first day back after spring break for those of us in Massachusetts, and as you might imagine a lot of the initial “How was your break?” conversations led quickly to discussions of the bombing and its aftermath. And as a journalism teacher, we got around in short order to the media and its role in the narrative of the week.
This inevitably produced pursed lips and tight shakes of the head, followed by one of these complaints:
-- I watched TV all day Friday and it was repetitive and uninformative.
-- Some of the traditional media were downright irresponsible, with the prime examples being The New York Post and CNN.
-- Some were using the internet and “new” media in irresponsible ways – Reddit amateur sleuthing, Tweets of raw police scanner footage.
These all seem fair criticisms to me. I watched some TV Friday, and it was boring and uninformative. It’s hard to defend CNN or the Post’s errors. And the week certainly produced some irresponsible web journalism.
The critiques, however, ignore the many, many instances of incredible, informed and even evocative journalism (if you live around here and haven’t done so already, subscribe to The Boston Globe right now, please). But I also see a larger problem – a subtext of nostalgia, a longing for a time when we had news organizations that could tell us The Truth. And we would believe them, and be able to organize our lives as such.
Leaving aside the question of whether that world ever existed, the main problem with this longing for a simpler, more accurate news landscape is that it presumes a passivity on the part of the audience. “If you just knew then truth then you would tell me and I wouldn’t need to watch a tape loop of the Arsenal Mall for 15 hours while you interview pizza delivery people about nothing.” It’s an appealing prospect, to be sure, but it also casts the news organizations in the role of the Truth Fairy and we consumers as grateful children.
This just isn’t how people consume news anymore, if they ever did, and the main lesson I take away from this week is that we need to teach our students – all of them, not just the journalism kids – how to drink from the fire hose of information that’s coming their way. They will never live in a world where the Truth with a capital T will arrive unbidden under their pillows each morning; they need to be able to read critically from a wide variety of sources, to arrive at their own conclusions and their own informed opinions. And we need to show them how, rather than limiting their exposure to the sources we deem irresponsible.
Take Twitter, for example. Did anyone Tweet uninformed or inaccurate information last week? Um, yeah. Would anyone who’s looked at a Twitter feed for more than five minutes expect otherwise? The whole premise of Twitter is that the reader is going to get way more information about whatever he or she is interested in than any one person could possibly read or think about. Some of it will be wrong, and it’s part of your job to point it out when it is. Take it all in. Make use (to quote Raymond Carver).
And skilled professionals are more and more making use of it right alongside the 12-year-olds in their parents’ basements. A Twitter feed filled with Boston Globe reporters was a most informative source last week, for example.
We’re also well past the point when pining for social media journalism to just go away has any useful purpose. Whether we love what Reddit did last week or hate it, we’re going to wake up in the next crisis and it (or its successor) will be there. What we can learn is how to use these tools more effectively, how to make sure grown-ups pull up a seat to the digital table, and how to evolve the mores of each site in more civil, productive ways.
Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker about waking up Friday morning, realizing news was afoot, and by instinct turning on the TV “to see the usual stern-jawed ‘terrorism experts’ being stern, scary, and obviously not knowing what the hell they were talking about. Within an hour, with the help of my eighteen-year-old, who insisted on turning from television toward the Web, we had the Tsarnaev brothers’ names, school history, wrestling involvement, vKontakte (Russian Facebook) pages, YouTube videos, and boxing photos.” That wealth of information is out there, and it’s out there because journalists are doing their jobs.
But we are all responsible for figuring out what it means, for ourselves. If we graduate students who don’t have these skills, we haven’t equipped them to be full-fledged participants in modern civic life. The Truth fairy will not be visiting any time soon.