This subject has fascinated me for years, and writing these blog posts concerning the news media has been a great experience for me. I apologize for taking so many words to express these ideas. This will be my last entry on this subject!
WITNESSES PROVIDE THE LEAST RELIABLE EVIDENCE
It’s emotionally satisfying to read quotations from people in any news article, and the emotional impact of these witness statements tempt news writers to rely on them for filler in their news stories—especially when there is a great lack of actual information to report. Recently I read what was probably the fluffiest news article I’ve ever seen in a supposedly serious newspaper. The birth of the new princess in the U.K. was kept so carefully under wraps that the poor reporters were at a loss to provide any information on the subject as they waited for the official press release. Unable to gain access to anyone who would actually know anything, one reporter filled his article with quotes from a random woman he had selected from the crowds on the street before the hospital where the baby was being born. This woman had no connection with the royal family or with anyone who had any connection with the family—she knew no more about the blessed event than I did, a perfect stranger from across the pond. But her every opinion was treated as seriously as any official statement.
This was an obvious attempt at filling out a sparse article with . . . something! But so many more serious events are also padded with interesting but completely superfluous quotations from persons who have no actual knowledge of the incident in question. It is human nature to want to experience the intense emotions of a tragedy at a remove—but is this news or exploitation? Interviewing family members of a crime or accident victim or of a suspect of a crime gives the news consumer a rush of emotion, but does not actually convey truth. No friend or family member will ever admit to the prying public anything but good about their loved one, even if they secretly know better; and using their grief to sell news is deplorable. Such sentiments help to muddy the waters of truth and can shape public opinion more firmly than any cold, hard facts can do.
But even eye-witnesses to an incident are not really reliable conveyers of truth. When my husband investigates an accident or a crime, he might interview dozens of witnesses to the event, but he inevitably gets dozens of different stories, many of them conflicting one another. There is a reason more than one witness is required for the Old Testament law to convict someone of a serious crime. Any one witness sees only one facet of an event from only one vantage point. And it is a fact of human psychology that when information is missing in what a person experiences, the brain fills in the blanks as best it can. The witness is not deliberately lying—he or she honestly believes what they are saying. But an experienced investigator learns to take anything a witness states with a grain of salt, comparing accounts to find common factors. Test this for yourself—ask someone who lived through a traumatic or emotional experience with you to describe the event and take note of how differently he or she remembers it.
Moreover, investigators know that forensic evidence is more truthful than anything a witness may say. DNA samples and blood spatter and fingerprints and skid marks can’t lie or forget or fancify the facts. But these pieces of cold, hard evidence take time to collect and analyze accurately, and the press and the public have no patience with it. Building a picture of the truth can take months of careful work—and don’t we want investigators to do their jobs properly? We should desire truth no matter how long it takes to discover—but the media wants sensation and wants it now.
Here is an example of a news article based entirely on eye-witness accounts of an incident which was completely inaccurate in every detail. We can all remember the shock and fear that followed the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. So imagine, just few days after commercial flights were allowed to return to normal, the sensation of a news report of a Middle-Eastern terrorist who forced a flight to land in Pennsylvania after a “violent altercation with the flight crew”. The man was arrested upon the plane’s landing and taken quickly away, leaving only a stunned and terrified group of passengers for reporters to glean information from. The airline refused to comment on the event other than to commend its crew for responding correctly to the incident, and the crew itself was not allowed to speak to the press. The man in question was not named in the article, but a picture was taken of him and published with the article.
Two years later, my husband and I found ourselves the hosts to this unfortunate man, indeed a very large and imposing-looking Middle-Eastern male, who had just been released from a mental institution and was lost, unable to understand what was happening to him or what he should do next. This “Middle-Eastern male” was, in fact, an Israeli immigrant, and so simple-minded and sheltered from society that he did not understand how money worked or how to find his family. Moshe had literally been raised in a synagogue in Tel Aviv—we took him to a park for a picnic one day, and he admitted he had never spent any amount of time out of doors. I asked him what sorts of trees grew in Tel Aviv, and he didn’t know—he couldn’t remember having seen any! His mother had always taken care of him, bringing him with her to Florida when she emigrated. But then she died, and her friends put the poor guy alone on a plane to send him to relatives on the other side of the country. Moshe had never traveled alone before and was petrified. He had a panic attack and tried to open the door to escape his terror—hence the “violent altercation.” He had not harmed anyone, but had been difficult to control, and so the pilot had prudently landed at the nearest airport in order to get Moshe into the care he obviously needed. He was compliant as a lamb as the police took him gently into protective custody and transported him to a mental institution.
It is completely understandable that the passengers on that flight were afraid of Moshe, describing him as hostile and dangerous. He had been loudly vocal in his terrified panic, but since no one could understand his words they were interpreted as threats rather than pleas for help. I would have been frightened in their place. But the passengers did not have any of the facts—they had only their feelings. And poor Moshe was decried as a terrorist on their word alone.
Which brings me to my last point:
OPINIONS ARE NOT FACTS AND OUTRAGE IS NOT A VIRTUE
Knowing intimately how investigations work, my husband and I refuse to form opinions on any newsworthy event until all the evidence is presented. But reserving opinion in today’s world is considered a lack of empathy or some sort of anti-social behavior. However, there is no merit in forming an opinion on any subject until all of the facts are known. The press drives the emotions of the public to a frenzy with quotes from persons who were not present at an incident at all, or from eye-witnesses who nevertheless have no first-hand knowledge of the truth. The public seems oblivious to the fact that observing an event at a remove, with no knowledge of the persons involved or of the events leading up to the incident, is fairly useless in getting at the truth; they seem equally oblivious to the fact that statements from persons who were not even present at the event are completely irrelevant.
It’s a sin in today’s emotion-driven world to have no opinion on a matter. Worse, it’s a sin not to be outraged by events that the media deems worthy of outrage. Persons who remain cool-headed in the face of an explosive event and try to discern actual evidence logically are perceived as trying to defend an alleged perpetrator whom the press has already tried and convicted, or as being coldly indifferent to the sufferings of the alleged victims. But there seems to be no passion left for the truth itself. When the forensic evidence contradicts the conclusions the media had already herded the sheep-like public into, the outrage increases. Truth is no longer important—the perceptions formed by the press, drawn before there had yet been time to properly investigate the truth, becomes reality to the rage-drunk consumers of media.
And why? Because outrage sells, and so the media eagerly milks every possible reason to create outrage. And the consumers drink deeply of it, because being outraged feels like doing something important and joining the outrage of others feels like being a part of something bigger than oneself. It becomes almost a religion. And yet, no matter how much it feels like doing something, it actually accomplishes nothing of merit. Outrage is a violent and mindless destructive force, lashing out blindly, harming everyone in its path. And when its emotional impact is spent, the press finds some other event to exploit.
Has the media ever reported simple facts without fanning the flames of emotion to get the public response it desires? I don’t know. But if we want to use the media wisely, we must constantly be seeking truth, not sensation. And truth is sometimes very hard to come by.