Buzzfeed. Covington Catholic. Can We Ever Go 24 Hours Without Having an Instant Freakout Over Something?
Everybody hopped on the BuzzFeed scoop and the Covington video. But saying ‘big, if true’ isn’t good enough, and neither is instantly manning the barricades.
Once again, we media types have egg on our collective face. And it’s our own impatience that is to blame.
Over the last few days, we rushed to weigh in on a BuzzFeed story alleging that Donald Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress and then followed suit by rushing to judgment on a video of high school kids seemingly taunting a Native American demonstrator.
Rather than circle the wagons or pretend this didn’t happen—or search for some half-hearted explanation to justify our initial reaction to the news—we should put as much emphasis on the corrections as we did on the original story. Then, we should do some serious soul-searching about how to prevent future errors.
The first step is admitting there is a problem. We journalists, opinion leaders, and, yes, civilians must try and kick our addiction to forming quick conclusions without all of the facts.
Yes, we are living in a time and news ecosystem that compels this behavior. Competition and technological developments (I’m looking at you, Twitter) have made quick reactions, hot takes, and context-free analysis more tempting than ever. We too often would rather be first and noticed than nuanced and unread. But in the immortal words of the philosopher Axl Rose, all we need is just a little patience.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Readers today have short attention spans and are often clamoring for the next big controversy. Preaching patience didn’t help when the “hands up don’t shoot” narrative was developing, nor did it help in the case of the Duke Lacrosse kids (or in numerous other situations). To be honest, it’s unlikely to help the next time something like this happens (and we all know it’s a never-ending cycle).
There’s also the problem of confirmation bias. Have you noticed that these type of media mistakes seem to favor one side over the other?
In the case of the BuzzFeed story, I’m guessing there probably weren’t a lot of Trump voters involved in that editorial process. In the case of the Covington students, it is clear that their identities—privileged young white Catholic men smirking and wearing red MAGA hats—cast them as villains and triggered many media elites. We know this because they told us as much.
In fairness to my colleagues, some commentators did exercise patience—just not enough.
In the case of the BuzzFeed story, the piece was up for almost a day before the Special Counsel’s Office weighed in, in an extremely rare statement, saying the reporting was not accurate. By that time, even the most prudent and cautious commentator might have reasoned that it was an uncontested story.
Likewise, the narrative about the Covington kids menacing a Native American veteran went virtually uncontested all day Saturday before longer videos and different perspectives finally surfaced, suggesting the kids were not bigoted but immature (you know, like high school kids).
During times of moral outrage, the right to remain silent seems tenuous. Increasingly, everyone from Taylor Swift to Paul Ryan gets criticized for not speaking out on this or that political development. There is a sense that silence equals consent.
So what should we do about the absence of patience in our lives?
As consumers of news, showing skepticism of stories before they’re fully confirmed is not enough. Simply saying something is “big, if true” does no service to the viewer. We must exercise judgment in the amount of times we air, discuss, and promote that story too.
Social media is still relatively new, but how our brains process information is not. It will take time to develop effective strategies to manage the way social media stokes our worst impulses. In addition to taking a breath before weighing in via social media, we should also remember that viral videos almost never convey the full story.
Wisdom dictates that we proactively implement policies and procedures to mitigate our deficiencies in the heat of the moment. And organizations should also make it a policy to withhold criticism about their students, members, employees, or staff until they conduct a complete review and investigation. For example, when the Catholic Diocese of Covington issued a statement condemning the students’ actions before properly investigating the situation, it merely opened the door for additional criticism of the students.
We should also have a zero-tolerance policy for doxxing and calls for violence, especially when the targets are underage. I saw several prominent commentators (and these were adults) urging others to identify the students, publish their contact information, and otherwise shame them. A couple noted how “punchable” their faces were.
We all need to be better, more sophisticated consumers and shapers of content. For the media, it’s vital to our very survival. Let’s be honest: A lot of conservative Americans do not trust us, and recent events have only reinforced the “fake news” slur.
Sadly, we never get around to accepting and addressing the fact that we are contributing to this perception—and we probably won’t this time, either. The next Trump catastrophe will distract everyone from his or her fleeting moral outrage and subsequent heartfelt apology, and the political hamster wheel will keep right on spinning.
Anyone who cares about preserving the institution of the media should be working to address these challenges, and (re)earn the trust of all Americans—even the ones who voted for Trump.
The future of American democracy may depend on it.