First news: The rush to faulty judgment
As of this writing, we really do not know what happened during the violent confrontation between a black teenager and a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. But when your cable-news or broadcast-news ratings are at the bottom of the heap, the rush to be "first" with the news, even if the initial reports are flat wrong, is apparently irresistible. This was especially so as the initial, fragmentary reports from CNN, MSNBC, and CNBC fell into that trap.
Moreover, it appears some sort of "politically correct" agenda is at work. For example, at almost the same time as a white policeman in Ferguson shot the black Michael Brown, a black police officer in Utah shot and killed an unarmed white teenager, a story the low-rated media virtually ignored in favor of a rush-to-judgment that the white officer in Ferguson is guilty of unwarranted police brutality. A 2013 story about a white baby in Georgia shot by two black teenagers because his mother had no money to give them, received scant media attention.
Ferguson was made worse by unverified and inaccurate news stories and exhortations by "professional" blacks who raced to the scene, promoting night-after-night of rioting, violence, property theft and destruction. Not waiting for the facts, statements by President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder did little to quell the violence.
Part of the problem is the phenomenon of "first news." It is human nature to accept the first salvo of purported "facts" as Gospel. When we first hear of a news event, we quite naturally want the "truth" of the matter reported so we can move our minds back to our own, more immediate concerns. Once the faulty "first news" is recorded in our brains, it is very difficult for any different facts to replace what our brains have already recorded. This is the reason why even untruthful, negative, political-campaign TV spots are effective. All too often, when the opposing candidate counters with the truth, it falls on ears already deafened by the "first news" phenomenon.
The April, 1912, sinking of the luxury liner RMS Titanic is a prime example of faulty "first news." Some newspapers were so certain that the Titanic would complete its maiden transatlantic voyage successfully that they had already type-set celebratory headlines. Even when first reports suggested a tragedy, some major newspapers ran these error-filled headlines:"Titanic reported to have struck iceberg. No lives were lost." "Passengers safely moved and steamer taken in tow." "All passengers safe Titanic being towed to Halifax."
Back in the days when The New York Times was a real newspaper and did not editorialize on its news pages for left-wing causes, The Times wisely waited until it had more information and wrote: "New liner Titanic hits iceberg sinking by the bow at midnight. Women put off in life boats. Last wireless at 12:27 a.m. blurred."
More tragic news was to come: Of the Titanic’s 2224 souls, 1514 or 68-percent were lost to the frigid waters of the Atlantic. But even those numbers are uncertain. The passenger list was confused by last-minute cancellations. Some celebrity passengers used aliases. The lesson: Reserve judgment until all the facts are known.
Nationally syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, is a laureate of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame, and the Oklahoma University Army ROTC Wall of Fame. He was educated at the University of Oklahoma, the George Washington University, the U.S Naval War College, the University of Nebraska, and Harvard University.
©2014. William Hamilton.
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