For the undiscriminating news consumer — and reporter, it turns out — summer 2010 has been fraught with traps and pitfalls.
A glaring example is the kerfuffle over Shirley Sherrod. Followers of the former Agriculture Department employee’s saga in July suffered whiplash as she was first outed as a racist who supposedly denied a white farmer as much assistance as was at her disposal, and then whose reputation was rehabilitated within when it turned out her remarks caught on video had been selectively edited to portray the opposite of what she meant.
But not before she had been vilified in the media, hastily fired by the Agriculture Department and dropped as damaged goods by the White House and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (all of whom equally hastily had to reverse course).
A lot of people ended up with egg on their face in the affair, especially the media outlets that broke the story. Multiple editors failed to do their job, which is to require their reporters to pick up the phone and verify a story before running it.
Maybe part of the episode can be attributed to “silly season,” described since the 19th century in the Anglophone world as that period in the summer when there’s a dearth of real news, editors go on vacation and there’s a proliferation of frivolous reporting.
But there are more serious reasons why so many news organizations rushed the Sherrod story to air before properly vetting it: enormous financial pressures that have stoked a cutthroat competitiveness and a need to be the first to report; new technologies that have compressed the news cycle into measurements of seconds, not hours; and new non-traditional actors on the media scene who either don’t have editors or ignore basic standards of journalistic professionalism.
The media certainly play a large role in shaping public discourse. The voices of wiser commentators who would reserve judgment until more facts are known are ignored in the rush for quick sound bites, producing a cacophony of rapid, superficial reaction, leaving the media audience with shifting impressions rather than considered understanding and maybe even a predisposition themselves for hasty judgment rather than fair, patient, dogged pursuit of the truth.
But it is tough to say which is the chicken and which is the egg: the media trend toward “gotcha” journalism, or the general mistrust malaise affecting broader society and which makes so many so willing to believe the worst about others.
Either way, the root of the problem is disregard for the dignity and worth of the human person.
In a remarkably positive survey last year of the new media environment, Pope Benedict XVI touted their “undoubted capacity to foster contact between people” but said more attention needs to be focused “on the quality of the content,” specifically to promote a culture of respect, dialogue and friendship.
The rapid development of new media and their popularity should come as no surprise, he said, because humans were made in the image and likeness of God, “the God of communication and communion.”
But as summer 2010 comes to a close, his words contain a healthy warning and an exhortation to watchfulness: “We must not allow ourselves to be deceived by those who see us merely as consumers in a market of undifferentiated possibilities, where choice itself becomes the good, novelty usurps beauty, and subjective experience displaces truth.”
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor