Truth: 140 Characters, Likes, Tags, and Posts

Last Saturday night at a dinner party, I asked my friends how history would record the previous week’s events. We then tried to list all of the events that occurred during the week of April 15th: the Boston Marathon bombing, the deadly explosion at the fertilizer plant in Texas, the Senate’s decision on gun control legislation, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake near the Iran-Pakistan border,  and we were sure that we’d missed something during that devastating and tragic week. The Pulitzer Prizes were award that week, right? And what about North Korea, we asked? With the bombings in Boston and the explosion in Texas, stories about North Korea’s increasing hostilities towards the US–which had topped the news for weeks–had simply vanished. The list we generated was exhaustive enough, and we wondered how, in the future that week would be described and reported. Which of these incidents would make it into the history books (okay, maybe not a book in the future. Official US History Facebook account?)? Which events would be left off the page/screen? We pondered what history would say about that week and how, tragedy after tragedy seems to keep increasing.  Was our history to be defined by terror, by shootings, by war, by catastrophe? It certainly seemed so.

The four of us (and a two year old, who, we knew could have weighed heavily into the discussion if she wasn’t busy chasing  her dog and wearing her pink sunglasses around the living room) turned our conversation about how we are told about these events. Specifically, how the Boston Marathon bombing and Friday’s man-hunt for the two suspects was shared in all the ways we receive news now: online news outlets like CNN, Fox and the New York Times, news radio like NPR, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, and even blog postings. No longer do we sit down with our parents for the evening news with Peter Jennings. Or wait for our parents to finish reading the actual newspaper before we get to clip out articles for a class project.  I first learned about the bombing at the marathon via Facebook, twenty-three minutes after the two horrific explosions detonated at the finish line. My news feed began to list posts from friends with such statements like, “Thoughts and prayers go out to Boston” and “Sending my love to Boston”. When I read those, I immediately opened another tab and searched Google for “Boston”. So much was unknown in those first few minutes. I then open my Twitter feed and went to newsy outlets I follow and waited for breaking news. The channels of the Internet were suddenly filled with reports and accounts and most of them echoed a haunting sentiment of the unknown. In those first few minutes, no one knew what had happened, other than people were severely hurt. How I get my news is so different than it was when I was a child –typically the morning news from Channel 1 during homeroom (Anderson Cooper!).

Cole and I own a television but we don’t have cable or local service. We watch it for movies, typically streamed over the Internet.  Last week, I stayed tethered, more than usual, to my computer and iPhone so I could stay informed, so I could have access to the news. NPR is typically played morning, noon and night on our radio and I kept the volume up to listen for updates. When I went to the gym, the three television screens had different news stations reporting about Boston and my system was shocked by images of terror, of grief, and also of, heroism. I was also trying to figure out how to process the terrifying explosion in Texas. I also wanted to respond thoughtfully and critically to the Senate’s action on gun control. With so much happening in one week, I didn’t know how to feel, or sometimes, what to think. There was just so much news happening all at once.

I could have closed my Twitter and Facebook accounts for the day, ignoring the stream of information (much of it wrong, misguided and sometimes, blatantly unconscionable) but I wanted to know, to understand what was happening. On Friday, I could have turned off the radio as the desperate search for reporting the news became, at times, irresponsible. But I didn’t. So I turned up the volume on the radio, kept refreshing feeds on social media, kept scouring major news outlets. The media, in the aftermath of last week, has certainly come under criticism about how it reported the news, especially in relation to Friday’s search for the two suspects. I’ve been very intrigued to read and listen to this criticism ( I enjoyed this article from Slate and this report on On the Media, if you are also interested). Certainly journalists should adhere to high standards and integrity when reporting the news but this week’s events seemed to echo a larger issue. In a crisis like Boston, what happens if the reporters and news agencies don’t really know what’s happening yet their readers and listeners and watchers demand information?

We want the truth. All of us. And I think, with the many sources available to us–simply at our fingertips, on our cellphones and pads and devices–we truly feel connected to these stories. As a nation, we grieve together and I think we share in the horror and terror of bombings, mass shootings, explosions and other catastrophic events (which seem to be gaining speed, don’t they?). When we have access news in so many mediums, we want more information, perhaps more information than we know what  to do with. We want a narrative, a narrative that explains why two brothers committed such horror at a marathon, why a fire at a plant where so many Americans worked resulted in a deadly explosion, why individuals chose to enact their terror on innocent children. We’re exposed to the plot in moving images and short, 140 character explanations and yet while we’re given access to the immediate event as its unfolding, we crave the back story. I think we want all of this information so we can process the terror, so we can come to grips with bombs and bullets. And with the new media, we can become involved ourselves. We can like a news story or retweet a feed from AP (just so long as it’s not a hacked feed) and then we become woven into this narrative. We become the news breakers and the storytellers. Our culture is no longer one in where we passively sit in front of the television and watch the nightly news. We are encouraged to comment, engage, participate. I think on a lot of accounts, this is good. It’s also dangerous, like the person who created a Twitter account for the surviving brother and posted fake Tweets about his location. What’s our responsibility to the news, to tragedy when we can easily cast our opinions to the large, large world? What’s the shared accountability between news outlets, reporters, and new consumers?

And how will history write not just about Boston and Texas but also of us, each one of us who report the news (sometimes this “news” is about what your dog did to you cat), and create a narrative every time we share, like and post?

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