The news media abhors a vacuum and will make mistakes in rushed attempts to fill it. The problem is on both sides of the equation; readers and viewers demand answers to questions that can’t yet be answered, so writers and producers speculate.
The past 24 hours of news about U.S. presidential candidate John Edwards is a perfect example of this trend – frustrating for everybody. Media falsely reported that Edwards would halt his campaign because his wife has cancer.
Prior examples of this trend include the rush to print and report rumors, which later turned out to be false, about murders in stadiums and convention centers, in New Orleans post-Katrina, as well as the reports, which also turned out to be tragically wrong, about the number of people killed in the mine accident in Sago, W. Va.
When you hear that there is going to be a news conference the following day, but that details won’t be released until the time of the news conference, something unhealthy happens: People Want Answers. Well, that in itself is not unhealthy and dangerous so much as it is a function of our curiosity (good), our impatience (bad) and our inability to deal with the fact that sometimes we just can’t know everything (really bad).
Feeling that their thirst for knowledge and information must be immediately sated, some people then turn to the Internet and cable television. To meet this demand, the media then speculates, much of it guesswork and a lot of it just plain wrong.
Old media will later blame the mess on new media but it’s not a problem of the medium so much as it is the people involved – both consumers and providers.
Once you hear about the scheduling of a news conference on an important issue or about an important person – in this case, John Edwards – your best bet is to just turn off your television, or at least stay away from television news stations; because the odds are good that whatever is reported will be wrong. Actually avoiding television news is probably good advice all the time, but especially during these times.
Sure enough, while Googling yesterday I came across a report, quoting an unnamed source (that’s always a red flag), saying that Edwards was going to halt his election campaign in order to stand by his wife in the hour of need, as a doctor has found that she has cancer again. The much-hyped new political website, The Politico, reported at 11:06 a.m. that "John Edwards is suspending his campaign for President, and may drop out completely. . . ''
Other blogs reacted to that site and the report was taken by some as being gospel.
Meanwhile, Washington television station WYLT's website attributed to CBS news a report that Edwards was dropping out and the Drudge Report also announced Edwards was out of the race.
My initial reaction was respect and admiration for Edward's action, thinking, “Why, that’s just the kind of kind-hearted, noble deed I’d LIKE to see a president do.”
I checked a few other Internet sites and saw some were not reporting this fact, and that’s also another red flag. Either someone jumped the gun, or someone is about to fall on their face, I figured.
Indeed, a few hours later it was announced that Edwards planned to continue his campaign despite the news that his wife has a repeat cancer diagnosis.
My reaction this time? “What a cold-hearted, selfish jerk,” I thought. And yet I realized I would never have had that reaction were it not for that earlier false report – which is not Edward’s fault at all.
This piece for the San Francisco Gate.com sums up the mess well. Meanwhile, The Politico reporter has apologized for his error.
You can expect some of the usual handwringing by media watchdogs, as occurred post-Katrina and post-mine coverage, about what went wrong.
Obviously, this mistake and the event itself pale in comparison to those events, but my point here is to note the continuance of a disturbing trend.
What’s the solution? Patience would be good. But in today’s world, where people take cell phones and laptops with them on vacation for fear they might miss anything “important,” it may be too much to expect people to wait for news until, well, it happened.
Instead, all I can say that this is one prediction which won’t be proven wrong: This is a problem that is going to happen again and again. But then that prediction won’t get me on CNN.
I can live with that. Can you?