24-Hour News is UselessJulia Gazdag

Last week was terrible, in many ways and for many people. People across the globe suffered bombing attacks, the Boston Marathon being the closest to home for those of us in the United States. Over 100 people died in China after an earthquake, a fertilizer plant exploded in Texas, and a five-year-old girl was hospitalized after being raped in India. After a week of trying to figure out what’s happening, let alone make sense of it, the one question that seems to tie everything together is: what in the f*ck is CNN doing? Whatever it is, it’s not journalism.

Actually, no. It’s not just CNN (they’re just leading the charge, having broken a story about a suspect in custody that turned out to be completely false). It’s the majority of news media, led by 24-hour news networks. CNN just enjoyed a huge ratings spike during the Boston Marathon Bombing and its aftermath of a manhunt on Friday, and I think it’s fair to say that they had a deliberate hand in using the crises to gain viewers. From reporting stories that have not been properly verified (as proven by the fact that they turned out to be egregiously false), to irresponsibly claiming that police have what CNN vaguely described as a dark skinned male in custody, news reports added to confusion, fear and racist retaliations in an already tense situation.

When you are mid-crisis and have the attention of a large, nervous audience, you have a responsibility to report verified facts. You also have a responsibility not to report sketchy ideas about dark skinned anyones, because you should know full well the racially charged history of the country you’re reporting to, and the inevitable repercussions of pointing a finger at a variety of marginalized ethnic groups to an audience in a prime state for scapegoating someone. What in the name of all that is f*ckery is wrong with CNN? While they’re busy trying to win the ratings war, they’re losing every last crumb of credibility they have left (and that’s just because Fox News exists).

After photos of a pair of Boston Marathon Bombing suspects were released, Twitter and Reddit were abuzz all of Thursday night about a student from Brown who had gone missing – Sunil Tripathi. One of his classmates from high school thought she recognized him in a photo of the suspects, and the internet followed suit, despite the fact that the resemblance was a pretty far stretch. Personally, I find it fascinating that even when the two suspects in question were white, the good people of Reddit and Twitter managed to find a brown-skinned man to accuse.

The original Reddit post was based off of a police scanner recording that referenced Mike Mulugeta (also a false lead), and which had nothing to say about Tripathi. If his name was mentioned on the scanner that night, it certainly wasn’t linked to the Boston Marathon Bombings (and if he had been missing from Brown for a month, perhaps the mention of his name was related to a search for him as a missing person, not as a suspect — all speculative, since his name is not mentioned on the scanner recording).

It’s bad enough that the mob mentality that emerges in a crisis runs amok like this on social media. But when a dozen news vans are parked outside someone’s house, harassing their family because Reddit and Twitter went after them with torches and pitchforks, it’s apparent that legitimate research and verification is no longer part of the journalistic process. There was aboslutely no proof against Tripathi, other than one mistaken ex-classmate and perhaps the color of his skin. When NBC’s Pete Williams broke the story of the two main suspects identities being that of Chechnyan brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (who are as Caucasian as you can get, being literally from right next to the Caucasus Mountains), it was after verifying and confirming it with reliable police sources. Because that’s how it’s supposed to be done.

The news used to consist of fact-checked information. Journalism meant conveying verified stories without editorializing them. The line between pundit shows and news reporting on 24-hour cable news is hazy, if there at all.

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  1. I totally agree with everything you said, except for the part where you single out CNN for blame. The problem is Twitter and the culture that accompanies it. If you want people to have a clearer line between news and entertainment, I don’t see how you’re going to get there without people being more reflective in general. The fact is that our culture has increasingly been rewarding news companies for breaking news quickly even if that means moving before the facts are in. (I don’t know the media as well as you do so I don’t have a good example, but I’m sure I remember a case where Twitter scooped the news media by a few hours and everyone in the mainstream news was really embarrassed.)

    In “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Steven Covey says, “It was like telling one flower to grow and watering another[.]” If we’re not watering the right plants, why should we be surprised when we harvest weeds?

  2. Unique perspective. Thanks for posting that. I’ll definitely check to this site to read more and recommend my people about it.

  3. This is a really excellent article. I think it is atrocious that the news uses horrific and upsetting events to gain higher ratings. The news should be a reliable source of accurate information, not a load of bullshit that plays on peoples prejudices and insecurities.

  4. Yes, yes, yes, YESS!!!!!! Thank you for this article! I was in Vegas while everything was happening and was watching CNN cover the events. I wanted to scream, yell, talk to ANYONE and see if they were seeing the same BULLSHIT that I was seeing. Why do they want to demonize immigrants so much? One is an American and the other a Resident. Nothing about “2 Americans” or “An American blah blah” was mentioned, just the same stereotypical “migrated from…” “Practice Islam…” WTF?! Thank the Gods the two families knew what was being done. The uncle and the aunt both showed their intelligence and refused to be pushed over by the media and their racist remarks/questions.

  5. Thank you for your article, Julia! I would however, like to point out a small error: the mountain range you reference is called the Caucasus Mountains not the Caucasian Mountains.

    • Argh. My bad. I think I translated it in my head directly from the Hungarian, which is “Kaukázusi” ie. from the Caucasus ie. Caucasian. Can I play the English is a second language card? No? OK yeah, my mistake.

  6. I don’t get why people keep bringing Reddit and other social media sites into this. First of all, by posting the information you just did on Sunil Tripathi it tells me that you didn’t see what was ACTUALLY going on Thursday night at Reddit. Mods were deleting and chastising people who were bringing him into the picture. They were also deleting and banning people who listed any personal information.

    Second, Reddit is NOT a news source. Who cares if they got it wrong… just like any of the other gazillion message boards, forums, facebook groups and tweets, Reddit was speculating. They can do that. It was the news that chose to go to them and #1 site them as sources and use the information they were speculating as facts/sources. Bad. And #2 it just drew more attention to them by all these news sources claiming that Reddit was getting it wrong. This just fueled the fire. If you just went by the headlines or most upvoted threads you were missing the bigger picture.

    Many people on Reddit were genuinely trying to help. They weren’t saying, “OMG these guys did this”. They would find someone they questioned, ask about it and usually other Redditors would debunk it.

    My irritation isn’t with you, because over all I agree with what you are saying– I was just on Reddit that night and how the media is now displaying them is wrong. Oh and I very much I approve of your use of the f-word!

    • Mostly I think we’re saying the same thing — the issue with Reddit comes in when a dozen news vans are waiting outside someone’s house because they heard something on Reddit, because if they had verified the source info the way they should have, this wouldn’t have been more than a bunch of people yelling on the internet.

  7. I couldn’t agree with you more. I also spent my Friday listening to NPR. The news media was running amok and creating an even larger mess with all the misinformation that was flying around. CNN did such a terrible job reporting, but then again, I’ve always preferred C-SPAN for anything political.
    I think that the social media was good for notifying the residents which areas to avoid and for putting everyone on alert, but that is it.
    Don’t you think if the brothers had an accomplice or any allies, that they would’ve been very aware of every move the police was making and that this might have in fact made the search last as long as it did? I say leave the policing to the police and social media should stop meddling so much during times like these. Too many cooks in the kitchen spoils the pot.
    The media needs to know and respect boundaries, sadly however, this only seems to be getting worse.

  8. Using the F word in journalism is as shoddy as reporting without verifying facts. A good writer wouldn’t have to use it… why did you?

    • This is an editorial. My use of language is subjective, whereas verifiable facts are objective. Thanks for your feedback, but I will respectfully continue to use the language I choose to when editorializing.

      • I think using the FUCK word really adds some spice.

        Julia, I always enjoy your articles. I’m picking up what you’re putting down.

      • You go girl! I work at a small paper and found what I was being exposed to on CNN as deplorable. The f word is appropriate for your editorial. And for the record, you are a good writer.

  9. The best thing we can do to free ourselves from this is to turn off the TV, stop voting based on political party, and go find someone who needs help.

  10. What a great, well thought-out article. Keep it up!

  11. Yes! There is no room for shoddy journalism, especially not when we’re faced with a crisis. I’ve thought this for a while now, which is part of the reason I love The Newsroom so much. We don’t want sensationalism – we want news that is factual, not speculative.

  12. Amen, Julia. Well said. It was irresponsible and sensationalist “info-tainment”.

  13. this has The Newsroom written all over it. great article, Julia!