Before sharing breaking news, consider the facts

Before sharing breaking news, consider the facts
6 min read
03 Oct, 2017
Comment: The traditional media model is broken. Now more than ever, readers must act as conscious consumers, writes Amal Awad.
The Las Vegas shooting on Sunday inspired social media users to make false reports [Getty]
Just recently in Australia, amid a morass of depressing stories of hatred over the same-sex marriage postal vote, a man head-butted former prime minister Tony Abbott.

Media rushed to cover the incident, and it wasn't long before news circulated that the perpetrator was wearing a 'vote yes' badge. The police refused to speculate on the man's motivation, but a hyper-aware public had already concluded that he was driven by his personal opinions about same-sex marriage. He was a 'yes' voter, angry at Abbott's preference against same-sex marriage, and so he literally butted heads with him.

Except, when he was later questioned by journalists, the man – a somewhat morose DJ named Astro 'Funknukl' Labe – explained that, while he supported same-sex marriage, he was driven simply by the desire to make the most of a fateful meeting with the former PM.

He told reporters: "I'm never going to get the opportunity to headbutt that c**t again ... so I seized the moment."

He expressed remorse; not for his actions against Abbott, but that his behaviour was used as ammunition against 'yes' campaigners.

"I believe in human rights and that's largely why I hate Tony Abbott, because he doesn't believe in any human rights – it [the head-butting] has absolutely nothing to do with marriage equality."

How many news stories have you read that are simply a shopping list of tweets about an event?

In reality, it mattered little why this really happened. In a world predicated so heavily on social media and the opinions it cannot filter, the internet had spoken. Each side of the debate claimed Labe as their violent trophy – the left in favour of his action against the widely-criticised Abbott; the conservative right pleased that his poor behaviour cemented their criticism of left-leaning, same-sex advocates.

It's hardly a new phenomenon, but reckless reporting – where violence in particular is a factor – can be beyond scary. Only a few years ago, an Australian newspaper published a photo of a young man it alleged was a terror suspect shot dead by the police after stabbing two policemen. The photo of the teen was taken from Facebook – except, it was the wrong man. The teenager in the photo was tainted by false accusations, his family traumatised and uncertain about its future in Australia.

In another realm, a tragedy in Las Vegas unfolded. Another mass shooting, and the internet scrambled to make sense of what is, unfortunately, a not-uncommon occurrence in the US, a country that has seen a high number of deaths at the hands of a gun-toting individual (and not just in mass shootings).

A video, 'America's gun problem, explained in 18 charts', offers some insight into the disproportionate number of deaths due to gun violence in the US.

But what clogged up newsfeeds was discussion on another 'lone gunman' – who was he and what mental illness did he have to undertake such a horrific act?

ISIS, not surprisingly, tried to claim responsibility, and others tried to blame them. Elsewhere, the wrong man's image began to spread like wildfire. And somewhere, another accusation emerged with a different man's image: a white convert was responsible, some claimed.

Read more: Islamic State group claim Las Vegas mass shooting

Then this: the shooter's political sentiments became a talking point – false reports that he was an anti-Trump Democrat populated Facebook and Google.

The internet once again became a bonfire of unverified accounts and musings, and the political leanings of opposing sides were the fuel.

The reportage of just these two events are examples of just how shaky the internet's media circuitry is. No matter how many outlets we have at our fingertips, the internet on a big news days is more like a murky cloud – there are facts and there are opinions, and sometimes they merge, without any consideration, to form malleable truths.

But really, is it news we're seeking, or validation? We don't read and share news to inform; we do it to offer our opinion. We stamp it with our political and ideological leanings. We hashtag our dissent and, in some cases, bully those who disagree with us.

Without fail, daily on social media I'm treated to a flood of opinions by no doubt well-meaning people who feel more strongly than everyone else about everything that is happening in the world, or has happened, or can happen. This is only amplified following any sort of tragedy or article reporting ongoing strife.

Why is one called a 'terrorist' and the other a 'murderer'?

Generally, and in no particular order, I see:

  • Mention of another atrocity "that no media outlet will cover" (i.e. white people get all the headlines)
  • Thoughts and prayers, then condemnation for these thoughts and prayers
  • Potential links to terror
  • Terrorist groups claiming responsibility for everything but the littering of a chewing gum wrapper
  • Dissections on the meaning of 'terrorism' and 'terrorist' and the ways in which these terms are applied; and
  • Dissections of media coverage when it comes to crimes perpetrated by white people versus Arabs, Muslims, black people and so on. Why is one called a 'terrorist' and the other a 'murderer'?

All of these relate to valid concerns about the world and the power imbalances that prop up racist and unjust systems. The 'media' – a faceless, boundless monster – is both the source of the problem and its potential saviour, depending on who you ask.

But really, squabbling over who gets called a terrorist isn't going to create meaningful change in the short term. The problem is the inherent imbalance that exists: the notion that we are all viewed and treated equally and that this is a minor aberration.

Read more: Social media feeds Middle East's appetite for news

There are reasons aplenty to question the authenticity of news – false reporting is a business now, though not the kind President Trump believes he's the victim of at the hands of US media.

But on the internet, breaking news is often broken. Sources can be varied and numerous. Thanks to social media, the 'news' is often coming from people who are witnesses or experienced a crime or event. They can only offer what they directly saw - a narrow-focused field of view.

This isn't necessarily bad, but the media offerings swell when social media lights up, and they typically don't stop at a narrow field of view – they offer 'analysis', code for speculative narration and opinion. And how many news stories have you read that are simply a shopping list of tweets about an event?

We demand too much from the news feed. In fact, we demand the impossible – instant facts and analysis delivered in a news cycle measured in minutes, if not seconds. It's no wonder that we end up with rumour and speculation dressed up as 'facts', and leaders compelled to take the swiftest action, basing their responses on the same flawed machine that feeds us tweets and sound-bites.

Arguably, there's little you can do to change the nature of what is an increasingly messy, at times inaccurate world of online media; but more thoughtful analysis, and restraint in sharing, would be a good place to start.

Amal Awad is a Sydney-based journalist and author. Her latest book, Beyond Veiled Clichés, explores the lives of Arab women. 

Follow her on Twitter: @amalmawad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.