Saturday, August 20, 2011

Reporting Unknowns

A short article on the front page of a local newspaper awhile back reported that police chased a robbery suspect near a mall, and at least one officer was shot.

There were other words, too, but they were pretty pointless.  They didn't add much actual information -- "up to two" officers shot, their condition "not immediately available," the suspect "may have" been injured, there was "a body" near the area (though nothing about whose body it was, or even whether it was related to the robbery or chase).  Sources cited were police scanner traffic and a hospital spokesman, not any interaction with the police department, suspect, witnesses, etc.

It had so little information that it wasn't really a news article.  In fact, it might be said to cross the line into rumor -- not really knowing what's going on, but talking about it anyway.

I wonder...  Why write even that much about that little?  And why put so much non-information on the front page of the paper?  Why not just give 1-2 sentences for breaking news stories and tell us that a story will be published when the story is known?  What does the general public really lose by waiting one day for reporters to learn what actually happened before trying to write about it?

I'm not seriously annoyed with the paper, mostly because the writing did consistently suggest/admit how amazingly little was known.  There was some honesty about it, and the nature of print media increases the likelihood that the healthy sense of uncertainty in the article will remain until further notice.

What bothers me about the article isn't the article itself, but rather seeing that kind of thing happen in conversations -- many words with little information, not really knowing what's going on in a situation but talking about it anyway.

It brings up a good question:  Why talk so much about so little?  It so easily drifts into interpretation which becomes rumor.  These conversations often fail to keep the honesty of the newspaper because human interpretations are often accepted or rejected before facts are known, and details become distorted further through further conversations.  Unlike a printed article which can be read many times by many different people without changing, conversational "reporting" tends to change the "facts" as it spreads.  Assuming for now that the conversation has the potential to be helpful in some way -- which sometimes is assuming too much -- what do we really lose by waiting to learn what actually happened before telling someone else about it?

"When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.  Or take ships as an example.  Although they are so large and driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.  Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.  Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.  It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell" (James 3:3-6).

These are strong words, but considering the damage done through rumors, strong words are needed.

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