For as long as people have reported the news, there has been an ethical code forming the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. It’s built upon the concepts of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability, so I think it’s fair to say that a great number of people were justifiably disgusted with the rumors, half-truths and absolute falsehoods that a number of news organizations made public in their rush to be the first to report the terrible news out of Sandy Hook Elementary.
To recap, there was initially confusion over who was responsible. The shooter allegedly carried his brother’s ID with him, leading some sources to claim that his brother was responsible. That news caught fire, and Facebook was soon abuzz with groups dedicated to him burning in hell or finding the most appropriate way to torture him. The same sentiment flooded Twitter and other social media channels, with people posting his address in Hoboken and advocating violent acts on par with what the actual murderer had committed. The level of rage directed at him – extending even to people with the same or similar names – was unlike almost anything I’ve seen.
This wasn’t the only mistake the media made, but it was one of the most egregious. Put yourself in the shoes of an innocent man: you’ve just learned that your brother killed your mother, shot 20 children and 6 adults, then committed suicide, and oh, by the way, CNN has identified you as the murderer and social media wants you to burn in hell.
While I agree that CNN and others were terribly irresponsible in their reporting, the problem doesn’t end there – at least not in the age of social. The fact is that an increasing number of people get their “news” from a Facebook or Twitter feed, and that means that it is incumbent not only on official news sources to not spread rumors, half-truths and falsehoods — it is incumbent on us as well.
Not to state the obvious, but they call it “social media” for a reason. In the age of social, we are the media, and we share a collective responsibility to adopt and enforce the same level of integrity we demand of CNN and others. We may complain about the job they did, but we did no better ourselves, and we continue to fail as I type this.
It’s no surprise that discussions in social quickly shifted to issues such as mental health and gun control. These are discussions we clearly should have as a nation, but again, I think we have a responsibility to present our viewpoints, whatever they may be, with the same level of integrity we would expect of professional sources. What you write could potentially be seen by millions. What you say could potentially influence policy. That’s the power social media has given us, and we have to use it responsibly.
Unfortunately, we’re not always seeing that, and as I touched on in a blog post from several months ago, people enjoy reposting a lot more than they enjoy researching. Many will share things that are false, photoshopped, inaccurate, or utterly ridiculous as long as those things support their world view, whether out of laziness, ignorance, or because they feel the ends justify the means. One recent example is the image of a handgun painted to look like the American flag, which has now been shared thousands and thousands of times.
For the record, I don’t disagree with the premise of the image at all, and I won’t address that premise or even the issue of gun control. I’m just going to demonstrate that this is image is antiquated, erroneous, and statistically biased, and I’m going to explain why sharing it is counterproductive.
For starters, 42 were killed in West Germany? I wasn’t aware that it was a country again. When did they put the wall back up? This obviously dates back to 1990 or earlier – and most importantly, before the extremely relevant Brady Bill – and that alone should be enough to make one pause before re-posting, but let’s move on.
Next, the contrast in numbers is certainly striking; 10,728 in the US versus 52 in Canada is a staggering difference. But Canada has about 1/9th of the US population, which means we can’t compare the numbers as absolutes – we have to look at them relative to population size. That 52 turns into 468 if we do that, but we’re not done yet.
Finally, we should validate whether or not these decades-old numbers are even accurate anymore. The most objective source I can find is the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and the most recent year for which we have complete data is 2009. In that year, the rate for homicide by firearm was 6.5 times higher in the United States than in Canada. The actual number for the US in that year was 10,300. Using that metric, and taking into account the relative difference in population sizes, Canada’s projected total for homicides by firearm would be 1,585 if they had the same population as the United States.
1,585 is an awful long way from 52. It’s also still an awful long way from 10,728 (or 10,300), but again, I’m not arguing against the premise that gun violence is worse in the US than it is in Canada – I am only demonstrating that the graphic is statistically manipulative.
But if it doesn’t change the premise, why does it matter?
Am I splitting hairs?
In the wake of a crime this awful and as we confront issues this serious, why am I quibbling over data points when they don’t even change the general premise? I’m doing it because accuracy matters more than ever at a time like this. If we’re going to have an intelligent discussion about gun control, and if we are going to potentially take action on a state or federal level, both sides have to be looking at the same data and both sides have to embrace objectivity. Both sides have to resist exaggerating and distorting the truth in order to further their agenda. After all, if we aren’t willing to act responsibly, how can we ask our lawmakers to?
Regardless of your position on gun control, it is in your interest for the opposition to react to your argument with “this is interesting, I hadn’t looked at it this way” rather than “what a steaming pile of nonsense”. We need to unite, not polarize. There has to be enough common ground for us to come to the table. Without that common ground, there is no discussion. Without discussion, there is no compromise and there is no progress.
And right now, we could really use some progress.
My heart goes out to the victims of Newtown and their loved ones.
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