Friday, December 05, 2008

Mumbai and Media

Earlier in the week, I wondered about the utility of all that rumor-based reporting live and direct from the Mumbai attacks.

Slate
's Jack Shaffer details the many contradictory details reported by mainstream news outlets over the course of that event. He also offers somewhat of a defense of that kind of reporting:


As one who has scribbled conflicting eyewitness accounts from a fast-moving story in my reporter's notebook, I have nothing but gratitude and sympathy for the boots on the ground who produce the hot dispatches readers crave—even if many of those hot dispatches turn out to be crap.

The latest example of crap masquerading as authoritative news comes to us from the pens and microphones of the reporters covering the Mumbai massacre: Reading the first wave of Mumbai stories against the second reveals how rough the first rough draft of history can be. Respected, major media outlets produced contradictory accounts of the carnage and its aftermath.

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Should reporters publish only when they've nailed the story six ways to Sunday? Not to endorse journalistic malpractice, but as long as they don't intend to deceive and believe what they publish, I'd rather read their imperfect reports from the scene of breaking news than wait for a book on the subject. "Journalism in lieu of dissertation," to use Edgar Allan Poe's phrase, is the light artillery we can use now.


Athenae reacts:

And look, I'm arguing simply that most of the autowittering on about blogs and their supposed reams of inaccuracies and unchecked facts and anonymous sources and OMG THE HORROR TAKE THEIR PENS AWAY is based mostly on defensiveness and projection. No matter where or how your work is published it is done by a person and thus will be full of mistakes and confusion in a sitch like this, I don't care if you work for the Daily Telegraph or are Twittering from your kitchen.

I agree with Athenae's point about the futility of any proposed blogger code of conduct and respect Shaffer's larger lionization of the first rough draft of history concept. But I think they're both missing a key point about the implications of reporting 'crap' as 'news.'

The proliferation of twitter rumors is one thing, but the mainstream TV broadcasting of rumors on a background of pornographic images of severed body parts and burning buildings is another.

The issue is that public reaction/opinion is driven by emotional connection or reaction to traumatized news coverage from the day of a catastrophe. Official response considers political implications, considers public reaction and opinion.

Shafer says that "as long as they don't intend to deceive and believe what they publish, I'd rather read their imperfect reports from the scene of breaking news than wait for a book on the subject." It's fine if he trusts the intentions of the journalists on the scene, but maybe it's a little bit naive to ignore the intentions of the official sources that pass along rumors to those journalists.

This week, there was a massive public demonstration in Mumbai. The outrage percolating from the crowds had something to do with what they took away from television reports of the attacks. Since a great deal of that information appears contradictory looking back... isn't all of this a little bit dangerous?

Suppose the United States was attacked by a terrorist organization and the mainstream news inaccurately proliferated rumor on the day of the tragedy that the attackers had an official tie to an unfriendly government. Wouldn't there be incredible an incredible public outcry for an immediate military response? Immediate means something different in this age of technology and short attention spans than it did in the past. Whereas in the past, an immediate response might be to amass or mobilize a large land army over the course of days and weeks, now it means dropping bombs in a matter of hours. So there might not be a big cushion of time in which we can go back and get all the info right so that we don't do something really stupid.

I mean, let's not forget the way the media has whiffed on, I dunno, WMDs in Iraq, when there was at least a few weeks in which to get to the bottom of things.

The point is that I don't know if it's enough to call on the media to do more to remind viewers that reports are contradictory and should be taken with a grain of salt on the day of a shocking event. This is particularly true for the TV media, which also shows the graphic footage partially responsible for traumatized public reaction.

Maybe Athenae is sensing that the blowback for the proliferation of rumor is directed at twitterers and bloggers. If that's what's going on here, than I agree because twitterers and bloggers don't have to and shouldn't subscribe to the same standards as the professional news media.

But I think Shaffer's article and the larger criticism of the way this event was covered is directed toward mainstream TV journalists. And if that's the case, then I think that we do need to take a long look at creating some sort of ethical standard for how rumor is delivered on the day of a traumatic event. Is it enough to merely suggest that journalists do a better job attaching rhetorical caveat when they're reporting from the scene of an event? I think we need something a little more compulsory.

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