Monday, June 7, 2010

First impressions

I remember that immediately after the bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City, some news reports suggested that Middle Eastern or Arab terrorists might be involved. I don't recall that anybody gave concrete reasons for such suspicions.

I mention this incident not to accuse anyone of anti-Arab bias, but instead to suggest that we should be wary of first reports in crises.

It takes time to get a complete picture of a disaster's aftermath. We're all so impatient, though, that we clamor for information, no matter what the quality. Like capitalists everywhere, the media respond to demand by ramping up supply, meaning that the pressure to cut corners on quality control is heightened.

We also try to make sense of whatever information we have. This can lead to incorrect extrapolations. In the immediate wake of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, for example, people outside the San Francisco Bay Area got the impression that all of San Francisco was on fire. That's because practically the only footage the network news showed was of burning homes. It took several days for the truth to emerge: the fires had been dangerous, but they also had been localized.

The preceding example illustrates another problem: the media, especially television, prefer dramatic stories and images. If one out of twenty homes is on fire, which house will be shown at the top of the hour, and which homeowner will be interviewed?

Another axiom: local news outlets are the first to sift truth from fiction. If we're lucky, the national and foreign media follow suit some time later. (And given Murphy's Law, even local news outlets may botch the job.)

Finally, the more pressure there is to blame a person or people for the disaster, the more likely it is for someone, on or off the record, to make an unsubstantiated accusation. In other words, sometimes bias does creep into breaking news.

So how should we react to first reports? Not with instant disbelief, any more than with instant belief. Rather, we should practice measured skepticism, bearing in mind the factors that can lead to distortion or outright error. And along with our measured skepticism, we should practice restraint in our reaction -- and discourage others from reacting precipitously, too.

(Coincidentally, not long after I finished this piece, I ran across an article, "Questions on Early News on Car Bomb," discussing the oddly certain tone of three politicians' comments regarding the 1 May 2010 car-bombing attempt in Times Square. Both Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano and Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) characterized the incident as a "one-off," to quote Napolitano, while Rep. Peter King (R-NY) blamed "the whole issue with ‘South Park,’ which Islamic terrorists were threatening to have retribution for." According to the article, "The three officials went on the air before the investigators working on the case had said much, at least publicly." Almost as an aside, the article also noted:

In the rush to discuss a disturbing news event, especially one that involves terrorism, some officials strive to be the face of calm. Some are eager to be out front in delivering information, even if there is little new in terms of facts that they can add to what viewers have already heard.

So we see at least one more reason why information released early might be less than completely accurate: an official is more concerned with soothing the public's jangled nerves (or otherwise influencing public opinion) than with providing solid information.)

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