The news authority… we think

I got home Saturday night around 1:15. I wasn”t really tired yet, so I decided to turn on the TV. Fortuitously, the TV was already on the Fox News Channel. Unfortunately, there was a report of another shooting potentially linked to the sniper in the Virginia-Maryland area. A man had been shot in the stomach in the parking lot of the restaurant where he and his wife had just eaten. That was all the media knew, and yet the rumors began to circulate.

In fact, they did not even know if the shooting was linked to the sniper; they assumed it was. They did not know whether I-95 was the escape route for the shooter, or the red herring. Maybe the shooter used the back roads. This time there was no description of a white truck, or a white Chevy Astrovan, or an off-white (possibly cream-colored) Ford van. There were no descriptions of the shooter or shooters, their dark skin or light skin, their AK 47s or MR 16s. There was no witness whose accounts had been faulty.

Nevertheless, despite the astonishing paucity of facts and/or evidence, the news channels were still on the air at 1:30 a.m., five hours after the shooting had occurred.

There was speculating and guessing, assuming and presuming, circulating and perpetuating. There was everything, except facts. The lighting in the parking lot may have been dark, may have been bright, but was most likely moderate. Sheer brilliance! I may have eaten breakfast, I may have eaten dinner, but I most likely ate lunch yesterday. Such rampant speculation adds no new knowledge, no more insight. The reports flooded in, disguising themselves as breaking news, yet the facts were still the same.

The news networks rounded up the usual suspects of forensic pathologists, psychologists, experts, and analysts, everyone but Keyser Soze, but no one with nothing new to say. They were there because their “expert speculation” apparently trumped the reporters” “non-expert speculation.” Even Anna Nicole Smith possesses the faculties to be an expert commentator on this story. But rumors are rumors, even if guised in the form of expertise.

The truth is that the media had been reporting on a story for over a week where the facts had changed only ever so slightly from the first few incidents. Many channels pointed out that the five-day layoff had been the longest since the string of shootings began. Now, I don”t think that the media is hoping for more shootings. Quite the contrary, they want the sniper caught, as do we all. But the media acted as though the five-day drought was some kind of slump, like Tom Brady is 0-3 in his last three starts, a three game layoff since his last victory. To treat the sniper with such meticulous frivolity is not the media”s job. The media”s job is to report the facts. There were very few new facts, hardly worth enough hours, or even days, of coverage.

Perhaps the worst consequence of the sniper shooting is the lack of attention to other factual news. North Korea has chemical weapons, we are going to war with Iraq, and Joint Intelligence Committee hearings on 9/11 are perhaps the most important hearings since Watergate. Yet the media persists to cover the sniper. Meanwhile, the sniper, who according to most “experts” is looking for attention, is reveling in publicity. The police have gone from hating the media for proliferating false accounts to using them as a conduit to relay messages to the sniper.

I do not mean to trivialize the shootings. The sniper is dangerous, the deaths he or she has caused are tragic, and I empathize with all those who have friends or family in the DC area. However, by spreading rumors and concentrating on speculation rather than facts, the media only aids the sniper in confusing and frightening the general public. I understand that part of the media”s job is to inform the public. There is no excuse, though, for puzzling us.

I do believe that the media have been somewhat helpful in their reporting. They have been timely and thought provoking. They have let us know and feel for the victims. As for prudence and accuracy, those journalistic tenets have been neglected. The media is only doing half of its job and it shows.

Maybe by writing this I am, in a way, giving the sniper unwarranted publicity. But I feel that it is important to be vigilant of what the media tells us. Otherwise, we allow the media to be sniped by the sniper.