Making sense of misinformation and real-time information

The wrong message about the miners trapped in West Virginia made news, then made news look back. It shows what every media, including citizen journalism, has to confront: our humanity.

Someone, reportedly a Red Cross worker, according to CNN, burst into the church were family and friends of the Sago Mine workers were waiting for word about their condition and shouted "It's a miracle!" From there, the message that 12 miners were alive spread across the globe in real-time. Jeff Jarvis writes that this shows how news travels ahead of the facts, as it often does. But it doesn't, as Jarvis insists, undermine the credibility of newsgatherers.

When news goes live, as CNN and other networks did with the Sago Mine story, Bloggers, too, wanted to believe in the miracle. the normal process of vetting the news breaks down. It's one of those rare times when the sausage is made in public. Jarvis yesterday praised as "transparent" Howard Stern's testing of his new studio live on the air, which is essentially the same thing as doing a live stand-up. Both Stern's test and the live feed from West Virginia are a gimmick used by media people to create a sense of urgency and authenticity, as compared the authority that news organizations normally seek to instill in their fact-checked reports. 

So, let's look at what this really tells us about the gathering and filtering of news, because it is tremendously important to understand that stopping and thinking is the only difference between news (when it works) and repeating what one hears as "fact." That eager rescue worker—if it was a rescue worker—wanted to believe in miracles and so did everyone in the country. So, his message, rather than the truth, was repeated. It's on the front page of the Seattle Times this morning, for example.

It appears the real breakdown of communication happened within the company, which apparently protracted the misinformation by encouraging the families to expect their loved ones to literally walk through the door of the church. But the media's repeating what was being shouted from the hilltop and celebrated by ringing church bells was simply an honest, human mistake.

Take a look at the clip of CNN's Anderson Cooper finding out the truth. He asks, "Where did you hear this?" and learns it came from inside the church, where the media was not allowed, and from which the previous erroneous information came. He's shocked and filled with disbelief, because, unlike ABC newsman Frank Reynolds, who really understood that "live" does not mean "repeating everything you hear as fact," Cooper knows he's not checking his facts carefully but just filling airtime until the truth comes out. Reynolds erupted on-air upon learning he had misreported the condition of President Reagan after the 1981 assassination attempt, shouting: "Let's get it straight so we can report this thing accurately."

Live correspondents today can engage with their subjects, as Cooper did with considerable success during Hurricane Katrina (indeed, it got Aaron Brown booted out of the main anchor chair at CNN, which Cooper took over, though he stands most of the time). When their "reporting" is belied by facts, however, it can be deeply embarrassing, which is some of what you saw in Cooper's dismay in the clip. He was thinking, "Oh, crap...." and Frank Reynold's rage was echoing in his memory, because today's live reports always happen in an environment that carries the reporter far away from the skepticism that allows news to filter fact from fiction.

Bloggers, too, wanted to believe in the miracle, even though there was no evidence to back it up. They repeated the "news" based on the same hearsay that the mainstream reporters did. As we talk about citizen journalism, we need to ensure that simply being a witness to events doesn't make someone the source of the truth about those events. A person standing on the opposite edge of a crowd from where a scuffle between police and protesters takes place knows a lot less than those close to the fight or those that take the time to interview a number of people involved in an effort to find out what happened and why.  

The journalistic process had already been suspended when the live crews showed up in Tallmansville. The lesson here is not that journalism is broken, but that raw access to information is misleading, regardless who gets it first. Citizen journos need to keep firmly in mind that what they hope for is not what the audience needs to hear, that the facts are hard to get at. Organizing to establish broad coverage is going to be tough.

This will be a critical year for news, both professional and citizen-made. Veteran journalists see it coming, as do an eager and energized mass of folks with blogs and camera phones. I'd wager that the great moments in citizen journalism will come from those who take the time to think and investigate rather than those who were simply at the scene of events. The witnesses are critically important to getting the raw data, but the distilling of something like news will always take deliberation, whether a "professional" or an "amateur" is doing the work.


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