On Friday twenty children and six adults were murdered at an elementary school in Connecticut, U.S.A. The horrifying news story spread at light speed around the world to our billions of constantly connected devices. Within hours the world was watching. And for any update available.
I was one of these people, watching for these updates. I wanted to know everything. What caused the mass shooting? How many total dead? And the more and more macabre: What were the ages of the children? What were their stories?
I am not proud of this morbid curiosity in the face of absolute shock, of sickening violence. At the time I convinced myself that it was related to my previous jobs in online media: the drive to be the first to break news, to share the heartbreaking stories and iconic photos that will be most remembered in the months and years following the tragedy. Because in many cases, that is what the news has become: the first at any cost. Keep the viewers coming back to your site because you have the latest details, the best photos. Reach, clicks, revenue.
When the Gawker story “Is this Ryan Lanza, the Connecticut shooter?” showed up in my Facebook feed I fell for that dangled question mark at the end of the headline. I clicked. I added to the publication’s reach and revenue. Did I believe that I was viewing the Facebook page (and then Twitter feed) of a killer? No. Because of my editorial work I read most things with skepticism and a load of doubt. But the trace possibility that I was reading words written by someone responsible for such horror was compelling. What would his last words be? What clues to his madness did he leave behind? Yes, I got wrapped up in and moved on, knowing that eventually these answers would be known.
But given our climate of need-to-know info culture, our ability to consume information and react at blinding rates, this kind of reporting can be toxic — not to mention irreparably damaging.
In “I am Facebook friends with Ryan Lanza” (Salon.com) cartoonist Matt Bors writes about being Facebook friends with Ryan Lanza — the brother of the alleged school shooter. I think his his account of trying to put the record straight (i.e. Ryan Lanza was not the school shooter) and the vitriol he experienced at the hands of rabid tweeters/texters and media should be recommended reading for any journalist. Our rush to judgement and our overwhelming need-to-know-everything-now appetite steamrolls innocent people, leaves behind a flotsam of misinformation, and creates hysteria.
Yes, like millions of others, I read those articles. I checked out that suspect Twitter feed. And while I’d like say, well I’m an editor and I know how to read these things, blah, blah, blah , I still engaged, and I let myself wonder. This has given me pause for thought. And makes me wonder if it’s even possible now to slow down and resume responsible news reporting. I’m not so sure we can.