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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Some thoughts about the events in Ferguson

Up until now, I have resisted the urge to write about the events in Ferguson because I have not really had anything to add to the conversation.  Depressingly, this story has become far too common to add much too.  Sadly, the reaction from people is also entirely predictable, which is another reason that I have stayed out of this.

That being said, I did see a couple of things that I wanted to comment on.

First, I *AM NOT* going to comment on the case itself.  I do not know all of the facts and am not in any position to judge what happened, which frankly is also true for most people out there.  Unless you saw what happened or heard the evidence, you only have a partial story (at best) to go on, which makes for bad decision making.  Sorry, but it's true.

Second, this case (like the Trayvon Martin case) has become about so much more that just Michael Brown.  To people who seem to be thinking that this is all about Michael Brown, you need to pull your heads out of whatever areas they are stuck in and realize that this is so much bigger than that.  Sadly, our country has a long and inglorious history of discrimination against non-WASPs in general, and non-whites in particular.  All of the frustration from that keeps boiling over.  Then there is also the way that Republicans have unleashed what can only be described as racism on President Obama.  They can talk about being opposed to what he does on principle, but it happens so frequently and with such vehemence that there must be other factors involved.  When a barrier is finally breached and the person who breaches it is relentlessly savaged for actions that have been fairly typical in the past, principle is rather obviously not the driving force behind it.  'Nuff said.

The first thing I wanted to comment on is an opinion piece I saw on CNN.com.  In this piece, the author rips into the prosecutor.  While I agree that as a matter of appearance (if nothing else), the prosecutor should have recused himself, I think that the rest of the piece is a series of attacks that would have been launched no matter what happened.  Basically the author says that the grand jury should not have heard all of the evidence and that the prosecutor should have recommended charges.  Had the prosecutor gone through the process as normal in a few days, I would guarantee you that people would have yelled that the process was not given enough weight.  Very similar issue with the recommending charges.  In either case, the prosecutor was stuck in the middle of a situation where there was no good answer, so he made the decision to let the grand jury decide.  And yes, I know there are people who are going to assume that he exercised some sort of nefarious influence on the grand jury, but without proof, that is merely huffing and puffing.

The second thing is the reaction to the announcement.  While I get why it happened, it was horribly bad.  First off, rioting and looting merely plays into a racist narrative that African-Americans are animalistic and not capable of controlling themselves.  After all, why can't they just protest peacefully the way whites do?  Sadly, that is the way a lot of people look at incidents like this.  While most people will not come out and say it, you can hear it right beneath whatever else it is they are saying.  In any time of social upheaval (which we are in now), people who are comfortable with the norm will do whatever they can to maintain the status quo against those who are trying to change it.  After all, people are more comfortable with what is familiar than what is new or different.  Since President Obama has been elected, racism which had been pretty well pushed out to the fringes has come to occupy center stage in the Republican party in general and the Tea Party in particular.

What can we do about all this?  First off, people need to learn another way to channel their anger.  Rather than playing into the racist stereotype of the angry black, people need to figure out a peaceful way to make change.  I know it is not going to be easy but that is the only way to solve this short of a revolution or massive display of violence.  Vote at the ballot box every election, hold *PEACEFUL* protests and demonstrations, or something else like that.  Maybe I have too much faith in the ability of the system to change, but I don't really see another option that will resolve things without any more bloodshed.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The impact of social media on the news

I don't know if you watch The Newsroom on HBO, because if you don't, you really should.  It is a great show that (admittedly) romanticizes the mainstream news media.  Unfortunately, the show is entering its final season.  Last night was the season premiere and I thought it raised some really good points.  I was debating about putting this here or on my TV blog.  I decided for here because the points I want to make go beyond what the show says, so here it is.

Last nights episode focused on the Boston Marathon bombing and on the impact of social media on the investigation.  While I know there are a lot of people who love the fact that the "average" citizen can now directly connect with other people and share "news" with everyone, I do not like it.  My reasons aren't that I only trust the mainstream news media, but rather that there are certain procedural safeguards in place in professional media outfits that are not in place on social media.  Anyone on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, etc. can post things and there is no solid way to make sure that the information is accurate before it is posted.  As I've experienced firsthand, this is definitely a problem.

When I was working as an election judge during early voting, we had a few people come in saying that they had heard that there were various unspecified problems with the voting machines.  When asked where they had heard this, they cited Facebook or other social media sites.  The thing is that none of our machines were actually malfunctioning or anything.  But we had these people coming in based on unsubstantiated rumors and almost yelling at election judges.  And therein lies my issue with this type of "journalism".

How many times have there been rumors of celebrity deaths?  How many times have people mindlessly passed things along simply because they heard it and so it must be true?  Sadly, it happens all too often and from this spring all sorts of issues.  Once something gets around the internet, it is deemed to be true and is all to hard to undo.  People can be smeared and ruined on nothing more than innuendo and slanderous accusations.

And The Newsroom showed that vividly last night.  People on Reddit or other sites sent around information claiming to have identified the bombing perpetrators.  Subsequently, one of the "suspect's" family was threatened with violence, rape, and death threats.  This was all despite the fact that the authorities publicly stated that that the men identified in the images were not actually suspects.

Please note that I am not saying that all citizen journalism is bad, but on the whole, I find it to be more harmful than helpful.  Most people don't bother trying to take the time to sort out good information from bad information, so they just pass it all along.  The longer it is passed around, the more likely it is to be accepted as truth.  After all, someone somewhere must have checked it out before it was passed along, right?

I also realize that the mainstream media is far from perfect.  All too often, they miss stories or get information wrong.  A certain amount of that comes from the fact that they can be so focused on ratings that they make a move too quickly (witness Florida during the 2000 election) or the fact that a lot of what people call "news" is actually more entertainment (witness the proliferation of stories about celebrities and their antics) or even tabloid journalism.

Ideally, I'd like to see corporations removed from the news entirely, but I am not sure if that can happen and the newspapers still run and serve as many people as they do.  Barring that, I think that there needs to be a firewall of some sort between the media and the corporation that owns it so that the media can truly be as independent as possible.

As for citizen "journalists", I don't know if there is a way to fix it.  There really is no way to stop that sort of "news" from spreading short of putting some sort of filter on social media and that would cause more problems than it would fix.  What we, as citizens, can do is to make sure that we check out stories before we pass them along.  It won't necessarily stop things from spreading, but it may help to slow down the spread which would put something of a damper on rumors and other issues.