July 10, 2016

Be Skeptical of Breaking News

In the United States, we all love to criticize our mainstream news media. We like to accuse them of pushing a political narrative contrary to our own while conveniently forgetting that such an accusation would have to mean that we too have a political narrative. How dare they present viewpoints contrary to our own! If we weren't so outraged about this sort of thing, we might notice a different sort of problem with our mainstream news media: much of information they report during breaking news turns out to be incorrect.

The recent murder of several police officers in Dallas provides a reminder that we should be skeptical of the "facts" reported by our mainstream news media as events like this are happening. The first reports I heard indicated that this was the work of 2-4 snipers. It now appears that there was likely a single shooter. So what? The difference between a lone gunman and 2 or more persons engaging in coordinated attacks seems like a fairly important one.

As of this morning, I was still able to find online posts from several prominent newspapers referring to multiple snipers. This is actually a good thing because it means that they did not simply rewrite their stories to make it look like they made no errors, as CNN typically does. This reminds us that they got it wrong and ought to make us a bit more skeptical next time.

It seems to me that much of our mainstream news media has become more focused on being the first to break a story rather than on getting their facts correct. It also seems like many major news outlets are content to uncritically accept and then report virtually anything authorities tell them. And so if someone at the Dallas Police Department said that they suspected more than one shooter, this gets reported as fact.

This is just the latest in a long series of examples where the initial reports turn out to be inaccurate and potentially misleading. Thus, it is probably wise to apply some skepticism to the initial reporting on incidents like this, even when we are tempted to fit such events into our various narratives and scripted outrage. It is probably wise to wait 24 hours or so to see how much the initial "facts" change before we assume that the information we are receiving is accurate. I realize that this can sometimes interfere with our social media outrage; however, I think I'd rather be outraged about what actually happened rather than some reporting that turns out to be inaccurate.
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