LAX shooting (again) highlights the need for a slow-news approach

This week’s most visible journalism error belongs to NBC News, which reported the death of the Los Angeles airport shooter and then had to take it back. “JUST IN: LAX gunman killed by law enforcement” – posted on Twitter at 11:15 am Pacific Time – gave way to “Correction: LAX gunman NOT killed by law enforcement. Gunman is in custody.” two and a half hours later.

A number of words come to mind to describe this process, but the one I’d use first is: stupid. The second: inevitable.

NBC’s error is notable mainly because it’s not notable. It was hardly the only major media operator to tell the world a falsehood. Sad to say,  our twitchy new world – where people constantly shoot before they aim – is the new normal. Nothing seems likely to lead media companies, much less social media users, to post what they can prove or know beyond a serious doubt, as opposed to what they have merely heard.

So NBC wasn’t the only journalism organization to get it wrong. Among a number of others that couldn’t wait for confirmation, the Los Angeles Times announced, “BREAKING: Sources tell @latimes that LAX shooter was a TSA employee. He was shot dead after killing fellow worker. Post coming.” The retraction came, as with NBC, more than two hours later.

I’ve been hoping that media organizations would exercise more judgment than zeal in situations like this. But hope gives way to reality – the quest for clicks, page views and viewers is plainly more important than being right.

So I return to my advice for the rest of us: Take what I call a “slow news” approach to breaking or surprising news. My rule of thumb is simple when it comes to the former: The closer we are (in time) to a major event, the more likely that reports about it will be wrong. Believe nothing until there’s better evidence than unnamed “sources” or the other speculation that passes for journalism even from our supposedly finest organizations.

Here’s an excerpt from the book that addresses slow news:

On Nov. 5, 2009, in the minutes and hours after an Army officer opened fire on his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, the media floodgates opened in the now-standard way. A torrent of news reports and commentary poured from the scene, the immediate community and the Pentagon, amplified by corollary data, informed commentary and rank speculation from journalists, bloggers, podcasters, Tweeters, texters and more.

Also standard in this age of fast news was the quality of the early information: utterly unreliable and mostly wrong. The shooter was dead; no he wasn’t. There were two accomplices; no there weren’t. And so on.

Several critics tore into a soldier who was using Twitter, a service noted for rumors, to post about what she was seeing. Indeed, some of what the soldier posted turned out to be wrong. But was it fair to extrapolate this to brand all forms of citizen media as untrustworthy and voyeuristic?

There was plenty of wrong information going around that day, at all levels of media. Lots of people quoted President Obama’s admonition to wait for the facts, but almost no one followed it. And almost no one heeded Army Gen. George William Casey Jr.’s advice the following Sunday not to jump to conclusions “based on little snippets of information that come out.”

Greg Marx at the Columbia Journalism Review was among several commentators to catalog some of the misinformation that raced around. He wrote:

It’s not fair to lay too much of this confusion at the feet of [traditional media] reporters, who are mostly diligent and conscientious, who are basing their claims in good faith on what they are hearing from their sources, and who are under tremendous competitive pressure to get the story first. But on a story like this, tendencies toward error, exaggeration, and inconsistency are built into the system, at least in the first days of reporting. In due time, a clearer picture will begin to emerge; in this case, we’ll even hear from the shooter himself.

There will be plenty of time for analysis. Until then, let’s all take a deep breath.

Like many other people who’ve been burned by believing too quickly, I’ve learned to put almost all of what journalists call “breaking news” into the category of gossip or, in the words of a scientist friend, “interesting if true.” That is, even though I gobble up “the latest” from a variety of sources, the sooner after the actual event the information appears, the more I assume it’s unreliable, if not false.

Still, I’m no different from everyone else in a key respect: When it comes to important (or sometimes trivial but interesting) breaking news, I, too, can react in almost Pavlovian ways from time to time, clicking the Refresh button on the browser again and again. I don’t tend to immediately email my friends and family or tweet about unconfirmed reports, though, and if I do pass along interesting tidbits I always make it a point to add “if true” to the might-be-news.

What is it about breaking news that causes us to turn off our logical brains? Why do we turn on the TV or click-click-click Refresh or scan the Twitter feeds to get the very latest details—especially when we learn, again and again, that the early news is so frequently wrong?

Ethan Zuckerman, a friend and colleague at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has some ideas:

  • The media make us do it. [As noted below, I give a lot of credence to this one.]
  • We’re bored.
  • Knowing the latest, even if it’s wrong, helps build social capital in conversations.
  • We’re junkies for narrative, and we always hope that we’ll get the fabled “rest of the story” by clicking one more time.

“I suspect there’s some truth to each of those explanations, and I suspect that each is badly incomplete,” Ethan says. “I also suspect that figuring out what drives our patterns of news consumption, and our susceptibility to fast, often-wrong news is critical” for having a sounder grasp of what we can trust.

Remember: Big breaking stories are literally exciting. They’re often about death or the threat of death, or they otherwise create anxiety. Neurological research shows that the more of your personal bandwidth anxiety takes up, the less clearly you think. To get even more neurological: The amygdala takes over from the prefrontal cortex.

Slowing the News

A wonderful trend has emerged in the culinary world, called the “slow food movement”—a rebellion against fast food and all the ecological and nutritional damage it causes.

As Ethan suggested to me at a Berkman Center retreat in late 2009, we need a “slow news” equivalent. Slow news is all about taking a deep breath.

One of society’s recently adopted clichés is the “24-hour news cycle”—a recognition that, for people who consume and create news via digital systems, the newspaper-a-day version of journalism has passed into history. Now, it’s said, we get news every hour of every day, and media creators work tirelessly to fill those hours with new stuff. (Happily, a few newspapers and magazines do continue to provide actual perspective and nuance.)

That 24-hour news cycle itself needs further adjustment, though. Even an hourly news cycle is too long; in an era of live-TV police chases, Twitter and twitchy audiences, the latest can come at any minute. Call it the 1,440-minute news cycle.

Rapid-fire news is about speed, and being speedy serves two main purposes for the provider. The first is gratification of the desire to be first. Humans are competitive, and in journalism newsrooms, scoops are a coin of the realm.

The second imperative is attracting an audience. Being first draws a crowd, and crowds can be turned into influence, money, or both. Witness cable news channels’ desperate hunt for “the latest” when big events are under way, even though the latest is so often the rankest garbage.

The urge to be first applies not just to those disseminating the raw information (which, remember, is often wrong) that’s the basis for breaking news. It’s also the case, for example, for the blogger who offers up the first sensible-sounding commentary that puts the “news” into perspective. The winners in the online commentary derby—which is just as competitive, though played for lower financial stakes—are the quick and deft writers who tell us what it all means. That they’re often basing their perspectives on falsehoods and inaccuracies seems to matter less than that they’re early to comment.

I’m not battling human nature. We all want to know what’s going on, and the bigger the calamity is, the more we want to know—especially if it may affect us directly (if a hurricane is approaching, the latest news is not just interesting but potentially life-saving). Nothing is going to change that, and nothing should.

Nor is this a new phenomenon. Speculation has passed for journalism in all media eras. Every commercial plane crash, for example, is followed by days of brazen hypothesizing by so-called experts, but now we are fed their ideas at hourly (or briefer) intervals, rather than only on the evening news or in the daily paper—and even that frequency was too much. Only months of actual investigation by the real experts—and sometimes not even that—will reveal the real truth, but we are nevertheless subjected to endless new theories and rehashings of the “facts.”

The New News Cycle

The advent of the 1,440-minute news cycle (or should we call it the 86,400-second news cycle?), which has fed our apparently insatiable appetite for something new to talk about, should literally give us pause. Again and again, we’ve seen that initial assumptions can be grossly untrustworthy.

Consider, for example, the Fort Hood shootings. We learned that the perpetrator wasn’t killed during his rampage, contrary to what was initially reported. And that fact stayed with us because the story was still fresh enough, and the saturation coverage was ongoing, when reports emerged that he hadn’t been shot dead by law enforcement.

However, we all also “know” false things that were inaccurately reported and then later disproved, in part because journalists typically don’t report final outcomes with the same passion and prominence that they report the initial news. We’ve all seen videos of dramatic arrests of people who were later acquitted, but still had their reputations shattered thanks to the inherent bias in crime reporting. And how many of us have heard a report that such-and-such product or behavior has been found to raise the risk of cancer, but never heard the follow-up that said the initial report was either inaccurate or misleading?

The abundance of wrong information in the rapid-fire news system has other causes than simple speed, including the decline of what’s supposed to be a staple of journalism: fact checking before running with a story.

As Clay Shirky (who contributed this book’s foreword) has observed—in a Twitter tweet, no less—“fact-checking is way down, and after-the-fact checking is way WAY up.”

Clay’s point lends weight to the argument for slow news; to the idea that we all might be wise to think before we react. That is what many of us failed to do during the early hours and days of the “#amazonfail” event of April 2009. As Clay described it afterwards:

After an enormous number of books relating to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered (LGBT) themes lost their Amazon sales rank, and therefore their visibility in certain Amazon list and search functions, we participated in a public campaign, largely coordinated via the Twitter keyword #amazonfail (a form of labeling called a hashtag) because of a perceived injustice at the hands of that company, an injustice that didn’t actually occur.

Like Clay, I came to believe that Amazon hadn’t deliberately made a political decision to reduce the visibility of these books; it was, the company said (as part of an inept PR handling of the situation), a programming error. But I was one of the people who flamed Amazon (in which I own a small amount of stock) before I knew the full story. I hope I learned a lesson.

I rely in large part on gut instincts when I make big decisions, but my gut only gives me good advice when I’ve immersed myself in the facts about things that are important. This suggests not just being skeptical—the first of the principles I hope you’ll embrace—but also waiting for persuasive evidence before deciding what’s true and what’s not.

It comes down to this: As news accelerates faster and faster, you should be slower to believe what you hear, and you should look harder for the coverage that pulls together the most facts with the most clarity about what’s known and what’s speculation. Wikipedia, that sometimes maligned mega-encyclopedia, can be a terrific place to start; more on that in the next chapter.

Can we persuade ourselves to take a deep breath, slow down and dig deeper as a normal part of our media use, and to deploy the other principles of media consumption to figure out what we can trust and what we can’t? We can. And if we want to have any reason to trust what we read (hear, etc.), we’d better.

My Media Habits: One Day

I’m teaching a media literacy course in Arizona State University’s online program, and one of my assignments has been to ask students to keep a detailed record of their media use — consuming and producing, but an emphasis on the former — for a day. (Maybe it should be a week…)

Here’s the assignment in detail:

For one full day, keep track of your own media consumption.  I don’t care if it’s reading a newspaper (in print or online), TV or radio program (broadcast or online), Facebook, YouTube, blogs, Twitter or anything else. Take notes. Then, do a blog post on your own impressions of how you get information and entertainment. For example, what are your main sources of news? Why do you trust them (if you do), and which do you trust more than others? Do you go to news organizations’ home pages or do you mostly read articles via links from other places, such as Facebook? A key question: What do you think you might be missing? Do you care? In general, I want you to explore your own use of media as a consumer. (We’ll look at media creation later on in the course.)

In the spirit of doing, not just telling, here’s my media use for Monday, Oct. 21:

  • 5:15 am: Wake up to a smart-phone alarm-clock app. Quickly check email.
  • 5:45 am: On a tablet at the breakfast table, check the New York Times homepage. Read a couple of articles including a fascinating piece about a Hungarian opera aimed at countering anti-Semitism.
  • 6 am: Before leaving for the airport, check to see if flight is scheduled on time (it is); print boarding pass.
  • 6:10 am: Listen to NPR’s Morning Edition on car radio.
  • 6:50 am: At the gate after checking in, an announcement tells us the plane were supposed to board is being taken out of service. Check the airline’s mobile site to see what is leaving later in the day if this one is cancelled.
  • 6:55-7:30 am: On phone, check out my Twitter feed, looking at stories several people have linked to, plus retweeting a couple of items and posting a tweet or two of my own (expressing annoyance at airline’s lack of information about the delay).
  • 8 am: We are told to go to another gate. Once there, read an e-book (in my Kindle phone app, on loan via my local public library) until we board.
  • 9:00 am: When flight attendant tells us to turn off our devices for takeoff, skim the San Francisco Chronicle, one of three newspapers I picked up in the frequent flier lounge). Catch up on the Bay Area Rapid Transit strike news; not much else of interest in the paper.
  • 9:45 am: On mobile phone, watch part of a saved TV show episode (Person of Interest, if it matters).
  • 10:30 am: On laptop computer, work on a chapter for upcoming book.
  • 11 am: When we’re told to turn off devices for landing, skim the Wall Street Journal (dead-tree edition), reading several articles carefully, including one about a broadcasting company’s expansion via what a critic calls a legal “shell game” that lets it artfully skirt media consolidation rules.
  • 1 pm: At ASU office. For next few hours, catch up on email, check Twitter, meet with students, read a number of news articles — via Twitter, bookmarks, Reddit, Slashdot, Feedly, Google and Yahoo News keyword alerts, email referrals, etc. — from sites including the New York Times, All Things Digital, BoingBoing, Talking Points Memo, Ars Technica, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Washington Post, National Review, Wall Street Journal, TechDirt, and many, many others. Make notes on some, tweet and Google+ a few others, send several URLs to ReadItLater for further attention. Do a quick post on my personal blog, pointing to my most recent Guardian column. Work on my opening statement for a debate in which I’m a participant on Tuesday evening. Work on next lecture for my online course.
  • 6:15 pm. At dinner in hotel restaurant, read a few articles from favorite tech and policy websites, some listed above.
  • 7 pm: Skype conference call: meeting of search committee for the next director of the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism & Media Studies Centre (where I taught part-time from 1999-2004)
  • 9 pm: Watch previous day’s Jon Stewart Daily Show monologue, then watch a film via Netflix (Fargo, a great 1990s movie).

A couple of things jump out at me when I look at this — apart from the immense amount of media use, more than most people (which makes sense since I do this for a living):

First, I didn’t watch live TV even once, and the only time I listened to the radio was on the way to the airport. (Note: I just edited this sentence to add the word “live” before TV, after a Twitter follower asked me why watching a saved show wasn’t actual TV.)

Second, my main sources of trusted information are in some ways a lot like the main sources 20 years ago in some ways — the New York Times, for example, as well as several other large media sites. But my way of getting to them is evolving, and I have many more trusted sources than before.

In particular, several Twitter lists and Google+ circles (roughly the same thing; collections of people I follow about specific topics) have become filters of great value. I can generally depend on them to send me to information I need to know about.

Nonetheless, I know I’m missing some important things if I rely only on other people to flag things. This is one reason why I go to the home pages of some news sites on a regular basis. The Hungarian opera story is one great example: I don’t think any of my automated (e.g. RSS) or human feeds (e.g. Twitter) flagged it for me. Serendipity lives in the new world, but the serendipity created by great editors is still pretty valuable.

Two decades ago, just before the graphical World Wide Web exploded into our lives like the Big Bang of the Internet era, my news/information/entertainment consumption was basically a daily sameness. Trusted (or mostly trusted) editors — including network TV people — put together reports, which could take or leave.

Today it’s a constantly evolving collection of people, sites, conversations and more. It takes more effort on my part, but I believe I’m vastly better informed.



I’m at the World Journalism Education Congress in Mechelen, Belgium, where I’m going to be heading a roundtable on citizen journalism and participating in a panel on media literacy.

Hundreds of folks from around the world are here. It’s the third such conference. I was at the last one in South Africa several years ago, and found it fascinating to hear how educators are doing their work in different cultures.

I’ll be tweeting from here and posting my conference talk slides later today.

Slow News Catching On? Boston Tragedy Suggests So

In the minutes and hours following the Boston bombings, the media erupted with news, rumors, speculation – just what we’ve come to expect in this instant-access, instant-posting age. Truest to form was the knee-jerk maundering from the usual operators, who posted the rankest kind of rumors as fast as Twitter would permit. (No links to those, on purpose.) How do they live with themselves?

We’ve seen this again and again in recent times. Recall how a member of Congress was declared dead in the Tuscon shootings (by NPR and CNN, no less)? Recall the frothing BS that came immediately after the Newtown shootings? In retrospect, media creators — professionals and non-professionals alike — did some soul-searching after both of those.

It may be having an impact. After the Boston violence for the first time in my memory, I saw a knee-jerk response that moved in a gratifying direction: a host of cautions, including from media people, for all of us to wait for actual facts rather than rushing to judgment. These kinds of warnings were not unprecedented, of course – I and some others have been urging people to take a “slow news” approach in such situations – but I was struck by the large number I saw in the immediate aftermath of this event.

The Washington Post’s Eric Wemple cataloged some of the Twitter warnings. One of the best came from his colleague, Ezra Klein: “What we truly know right now is this is horrible. But be careful about retweeting things people think they know.”

I’ve been hearing this kind of thing lately from students, too. They know better than to believe what they hear and read, especially when it’s close in time to a major event. Slow news means taking a breath.

Of course, several hours later the media were looking for new news. I expect (and am already starting to see) a raft of speculation about suspects, motives, etc. It’s too much to ask news media to behave well for more than an hour or two. I’ll take that much, gladly.

Here’s one knee-jerk response we can almost guarantee, however. Law enforcement and national security people will seize on this to push their ongoing agenda to create a surveillance state where civil liberties are mostly a thing of the past.

My thoughts are with the victims and their families. Whatever we learn about who did this, much less why, let’s remember the human cost of this violence.

Meanwhile, as “consumers” of news, let’s recognize our individual obligation in these circumstances. Take a slow-news approach. Keep clicking the Refresh button in the browser. But wait for verified facts before you come to any conclusions.

(Corrected to fix misspelling of Eric Wemple’s name; ouch, sorry.)

NY Times Still Doesn’t Call Torture What It Is

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan tackles her paper’s unwillingness to use plain, accurate language in an almost hard-hitting post, “‘Targeted Killing,’ ‘Detainee’ and ‘Torture’: Why Language Choice Matters”. She asks editors about these choices and gets, sorry to say, mushy answers. She concludes:

When news organizations accept the government’s way of speaking, they seem to accept the government’s way of thinking. In The Times, these decisions carry even more weight.

Word choices like these deserve thoughtful consideration – and, at times, some institutional soul-searching.

By my reckoning, the Times could do a bunch more soul-searching.

New York Times Edges Closer to Honesty re Torture

A New York Times editorial about newly confirmed CIA director John Brennan gets tough on Brennan and his allies regarding torture:

(A)t his Senate confirmation hearing in February, he appeared to be one of the few people (apart from maybe Dick Cheney and some other die-hard right-wingers) who thinks there is some doubt still about whether the Bush administration tortured prisoners, hid its actions from Congress and misled everyone about whether coerced testimony provided valuable intelligence.

The editorial writer might have added another large group of quasi-deniers to this list: the news media, including the New York Times’ own news pages, which for years have refused to call torture what it is.

In fact, the editorial links to an article the Times ran a day earlier. This piece, by Scott Shane, discussed a Senate report about U.S. practices. But while it edged closer to honesty than what we’ve seen before, Shane and his editors went into all kinds of contortions to avoid a simple, declarative statement on the topic. Look at the language.

  • “…so-called enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding…”
  • “…Democratic critics of what they call a morally and practically disastrous experiment in torture…”
  • “…Republican defenders who say the report is biased and fault President Obama for banning coercive interrogations…”
  • “…brutal interrogations…”
  • “…enhanced interrogation techniques…”
  • and so on.

At one point, the article  comes close to telling the literal truth, when it calls the Senate report

by far the most thorough examination of how the United States came to use nudity, cold, sleep deprivation, stress positions, wall-slamming and waterboarding, methods it had long condemned as abuse or torture.

The Times news pages have demonstrated utter  journalistic cowardice for years on this topic. After 9/11, when the Bush administration insisted that it was employing “harsh interrogation techniques,” the Times joined the vast majority of major American news organizations that adopted this Orwellian language to describe techniques that are, in fact, torture by any rational definition — and which the U.S. has officially prosecuted as torture when used by others.

The Times’ behavior in this regard has been particularly reprehensible given the feeble excuse offered by the paper after a Kennedy School study made clear news organizations’ hypocrisy. The newspaper said it would be “taking sides” to use the correct language, unaware that channeling Orwell was itself taking sides.

The Times editorial page found its spine a while back. As the Brennan editorial shows, the editorial writers are allowed to call torture what it is, with none of the evasions the news page editors have insisted on for all these years.

As the Shane story this week makes apparent, the news sections staff members are beginning to recover their collective spine. His piece comes after a December article about Zero Dark Thirty, the movie that all but endorsed torture, when the Times referred to “CIA torture” in the headline, though the story itself bent over backwards not to follow suit in a direct way.

Someday the New York Times — America’s best and most important newspaper — will re-declare independence from whatever fear or calculation led it to be so cowardly for so long. May that day come sooner than later.

Washington Post’s “Reader Representative”

The Washington Post says it’s ending the ombudsman’s job, formerly occupied by an independent full-time person, and replacing it with a “reader representative” post, staffed from inside the newspaper and reporting to the editor of the editorial pages. Publisher Katherine Weymouth writes, in part:

The representative will not write a weekly column for the page but will write online and/or in the newspaper from time to time to address reader concerns, with responses from editors, reporters or business executives as appropriate.

Beginning Monday, you may send questions or complaints to We know that media writers inside and outside The Post will continue to hold us accountable for what we write, as will our readers, in letters to the editor and online comments on Post articles.

In short, while we are not filling a position that was created decades ago for a different era, we remain faithful to the mission. We know that you, our readers, will hold us to that, as you should.

Faithful to the mission? Really?

First, an employee won’t be independent in any way that matters.

Second, the editorial pages of the Post have distinguished themselves — the op-ed columns in particular — as a bastion of mediocrity in recent years. The editor, who has no influence in the newsroom anyway, is hardly the right person to put in charge of this post — and in my own experience he’s been unwilling to correct even this blatant error in a Post editorial.

Finally, it’s not enough to say that media inside and outside the paper will hold it accountable if the organization isn’t really interested in being accountable.

(By the way, I can agree with Weymouth on at least this: The ombudsman’s traditional role makes no sense in a digital world. What does? Here’s what I told the New York Times, at the paper’s request, when it was considering how to move ahead imagining in this role.)

Teachers: Mediactive Lesson Plans with WordPress Installation

This package of files (Mediactive Lesson Plans — a zip archive of about 18MB) is for teachers who want to help their students become more media literate in this digital age.

The package includes:

  • Lesson plan documents (Word format)
  • PowerPoint presentations
  • WordPress files that let you easily create a site based on Mediactive. (Here’s a screenshot of what you’ll see after importing the file into a new WordPress install:
  • mediactive wordpress installation

The lesson-plan project was created by Kristy Roschke, a former high-school teacher who’s now getting her PhD at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication; and Josh Sprague, who came up with the idea of creating a WordPress version. Huge thanks to both of them!

I hope you’ll find these useful — and that your students will, too. And please let us know how we can improve these teaching aids.

Global Warmings Terrifying New Math | Politics News | Rolling Stone

Journalism you simply aren’t seeing in the traditional media anymore: Bill McKibben’s “Global Warmings Terrifying New Math” is telling truth to a society that doesn’t want to hear it. Our grandchildren will loathe us for this and other thefts from their future, and they will be right.

Another Short-Sighted News Organization Hands Part of Its Future to Facebook

In a clear example of the asymmetry of power that now exists between Facebook and just about everyone else on the Web, check out the way The New York Times has handed a huge gift to the social networking giant: The Times is requiring that anyone who wants to be a “verified commenter” — and with that a higher form of commenting privileges — must a) have a Facebook account; and b) use that account for identity verification.

This is vastly, vastly better for Facebook than the Times. Given Facebook’s tendency to track what people do online whenever possible — something you can take for granted in this case, given the attractive (for marketers) demographics of Times readers — the company will gain deep insights into what these people read and buy.

What does the Times get? A bit of extra convenience, nothing more.

News organizations that use Facebook for login to comments and other features are unbelievably short-sighted. Which, of course, is absolutely nothing new.