Death in Nostalgia City

By Mark S. Bacon

Tweet this, CBS

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The following has nothing to do with murder mysteries, book publishing, film noir or anything else you’re used to reading about here. I’ll return next time with an article on mystery writers’ ideas and techniques.  This is about the future of truth.

Where do you find out what’s going on each day, TV news, radio, newspapers, Twitter, Facebook? Increasingly the latter two choices form the foundation for how Americans understand the world. And it scares the hell out of me.

Journalists are trained to be neutral observers, to gather facts, substantiate information, vet sources, confirm details. They recognize what is newsworthy and what is not. Experience tells them when a governmental official, a corporate CEO or a lobbyist is trying to boost her or his image, rather than tell the truth. News reporters—at least the best and most seasoned—abide by a code of conduct and are schooled in the dangers of libel. Print and broadcast news writers are professionals who report to editors and whose livelihoods depend on their accuracy.

Folks who post on social media do so for a variety of reasons; generally a desire to provide precise, unbiased communication is not one of them. Nor should it be. Social media is random, unregulated and mainly for fun. People find friends, complain about misfortunes, brag about accomplishments, praise others, promote products, tell jokes, display pictures of grandchildren and often chat the way you would with friends and/or strangers in a bar.   Certainly social media also is used to advance causes, expose injustices and comfort the lonely or the disenfranchised. But it’s not news.

The growing reliance on social media for news has created a circular problem: As more people abandon traditional news outlets, publications and stations lay off reporters, close foreign bureaus, cut corners and, unfortunately, rely more heavily on questionable, not to say spurious, reports from social media.

Network TV news regularly uses messages newsmakers post on Twitter rather than actually talking to the people involved. This is unprofessional, misleading and unwise for so many reasons. Did the tweet actually originate with the supposed source? Did that person have help to create the message? Was it coerced? Newscasters should be embarrassed to quote a tweet. Dependence on social media as a news source, either by the public directly or via allegedly bona fide news outlets, presents an unrepresentative, inaccurate view of the world that is at times banal, biased, bogus and filled with celebrity mania.

Case in point: On Sunday, June 14, a United Airlines jet flying from Chicago to London experienced mechanical problems mid-flight and had to turn back. They were forced to land in Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada. Because some of the passengers were outraged by the barracks-style accommodations they had to put up with for the night in this small, rural town, they took to Twitter to slam the airlines, the town and anything else they could see. What was a relatively routine event, became national TV news because at least one network was watching Twitter. It made an easy, inexpensive story to cover; just broadcast tweets.

Parenthetically, the airline apparently did not communicate with passengers during the stay in Goose Bay. Was the flight crew not authorized to talk to passengers? Did United executives and PR people default to siege–no comment–mentality when it was not only unnecessary but obviously the main cause of the passengers’ grief? Ironically, even the airline’s public response was reported from a tweet.

While the network was covering this “breaking” story, what other national events received no air time? The economy? The drought? Healthcare? I don’t know. I was updating my status on Facebook.

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