I had planned to blog about something completely different today, but I didn’t get round to writing that post because I spent large parts of the weekend reading and thinking about the events in Connecticut on Friday.
I know this goes against my sort-of-but-not-really policy of not blogging about topical stuff (like that time I didn’t blog about the US election), but I just wanted to say a bit about the Newtown shootings, especially about the way these stories are reported in the media.
But what is there to say? Hopes, prayers, fears, things to be thankful for, things we should be campaigning for? I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. There is, when you consider all you’ve heard, a blank horror which makes all thought impossible. The BBC’s North America editor said:
I really get the feeling of a country struggling to find an appropriate response to this home-grown horror.
So I’m not going to add my voice to the sorrow and reproach, and discussions of what should be done. (But please read I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.)
My day job for a human rights NGO often involves writing news stories about horrific violence and torture, so I was really interested to see two of my favourite websites discussing the way this kind of terrible story is covered in the media.
I’ve talked before about how not to report tragedies. A certain infamous British tabloid (mentioning no names, The Sun) reported on the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in a way that was frankly unacceptable by most journalistic standards – however much they had to balance these with the imperative to write for your audience. And now we have a new tragedy, a new wave of reporting, and new standards to judge journalism by.
Being right vs being first
Mashable’s op-ed emphasises the importance of being right, not first.
No one waits for the facts anymore, least of all online media. It is “find and run with it.” All apologies can come later. It’s just media, after all. Just digital words and images, easily changed with the stroke of a key. People will read the update or the updated post. So it’s all good, right?
Except it’s not.
If you’re involved in any way in putting information out to the ravening public masses, of course you want to get an exclusive, exciting story.
Exclusives are currency. To learn and share the name of the monster who did this is, to put it bluntly, a “win” for the media outlet.
But here’s the thing, and I can’t say this often enough: you have a responsibility. Oh, did you not hear me? YOU HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY. In some cases, this responsibility is literally life or death for the people whose names you throw around carelessly. So we should never ever let the pressure to be first override the responsibility to be right.
And here’s a tiny bit of good news..
And then The Atlantic discussed what websites should look like when they cover tragic stories. Here’s their screen grab of what Buzzfeed’s (admittedly awesome) story looked like:
So, visually, we’re getting: At Least 26 Dead. And also: the 32 Man-Candiest Moments. And also: 10 Starring Actors. And also: 1 Ukelele. And also: 1 Grumpy Cat. And all of those are jumbled together, awkwardly, under the auspices of “social news.”
This is not great. It really isn’t. It’s true that it’s not Buzzfeed’s fault, as such – that’s just how their website is designed. Most of what’s on their site goes pretty well with Grumpy Cat and man candy. But sometimes it doesn’t, as with their coverage of the Newtown shootings, and that’s when things need to change.
Buzzfeed have now admirably stepped up to the plate by removing the cats and man candy links from their pages about Newtown, so you just get the story, and none of the ‘Hot Buzz’ stuff on the side:
You know what? I’m really happy about this. Because from a marketing perspective, that web page is a disaster: the ‘Hot Buzz’ links on the side are what get people to stay on your site, to click through to other awesomeness, which they’ll hopefully share with their friends; and ultimately you get you more traffic and therefore better stats. Taking them away, giving your readers just a blank page, goes against everything their site is about.
Buzzfeed did the right thing even though it’ll cost them. It’s a small, a very small chink of light in the wake of everything that’s happened. But at times like these, I’m taking whatever light I can get.