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.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with editorializing current events, as long as it is in the proper context. A reporter in the field is not the same as a pundit given a show in which to spew his or her thoughts across the airwaves. Moreover, if a reporter in the field is reporting on the current state of trees and squirrels, like CNN did on the street of a Boston suburb last Friday, then maybe it’s a good time to cut to coverage of the fifty million other things happening in the country warranting attention, let alone international news.
This isn’t information. This is info-tainment, at best, but personally, I’m not amused. I spent all of last Friday listening to WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station, the only source I found who repeatedly reminded listeners, “we know so little at this point that we can’t draw conclusions.” They don’t have to refer to guests as “experts” because referring to their job titles speaks for itself. In its lack of journalistic integrity, CNN, along with the rest of cable news, has proven to be more of a hindrance to a public invetigation than a conveyor of information between events and viewers, feeding general hysteria and benefitting from it.
The news is not a prime-time sitcom. It should not be about ratings. It should not be a catalyst in mob mentality. Rather, it should be a measured voice of opinionless facts, helping to guide its audience through a situation rather than hold its attention with any means neccesary. Standards of fact-checking and sources need to be revisited, and standards of reporting need to be raised far higher than they currently are. If old-school journalism is nervous that social media is taking over as a primary news source, the endless stream of hot messes they keep producing is definitely a step in the wrong direction.
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