Media playing a dangerous game following Toronto van attack

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What is it about sudden tragedy that makes us act so irrationally?

In this case, when I say “us,” I mean us in the media.  We like to think of ourselves as the arbiters of truth.  The valiant observers providing facts and balance to any given situation.  The writers of the first draft of history.

But when something large and awful happens so much of the idealism and the commitment to upholding standards slips away.  In the heat and adrenaline of the moment, we take chances, cut corners, and let our guard down.  And in doing so, risk everything for the glory of a scoop.

The van attack this week in Toronto offers two examples of this media recklessness, with two different outcomes.

The first instance is the more obviously glaring.  During the opening few hours after the van attack, little was known.  It always happens like this.  But breaking news requires information, so journalists turn to eye witnesses.  The trouble with eye witnesses is they don’t always have as clear a memory as they might think.  They certainly have information they can give to reporters giving everyone an idea of what happened, but what they say should be treated with caution.

CBC News Network anchor Natasha Fatah was not, shall we say, very cautious on Monday.  As things were unfolding she was doing what everyone else was: watching TV for information.  But she was also tweeting what she was seeing, and because she’s a journalist what she tweets has special weight, an implied credibility.

So when she tweeted “Witness to truck ramming into pedestrians tells local Toronto TV station that the driver looked wide-eyed, angry and Middle Eastern,” this spread like wildfire.  It did so for two, fairly obvious, reasons.  One, it fit the easily applicable narrative that this was some sort of Islamic terror attack.  People see “Middle Eastern” in connection with death and destruction and they assume “terrorist” and run from there.  Second, this is a CBC journalist saying this.  That has real weight.

It also had permanence.  Where a quick segment on a live TV news report might have slipped off into the ether, this tweet stuck around.

The weight and the permanence of it meant it spread to all the worst corners of the internet — Breitbart, Faith Goldy, etc. — where stories were written how it was a “Middle Eastern terrorist” who was killing people in Toronto.

The second instance of media recklessness came later in the day.  News outlets — Global News and CBC among them — began running stories about a Facebook post the apparent killer made in the minutes before beginning his rampage.  It was a possible manifest of sorts, laying out the driver’s grievances in a cryptic way, suggesting he was an “involuntary celibate” — put plainly, a man who wants to have sex, but hasn’t.

The trouble with this post is they couldn’t verify it was real.  A cached version of CBC’s story from the day reads: “CBC News has not been able to independently verify whether the Facebook post was, indeed, written by [the alleged driver] or created after that fact and intended to mislead.”

Not being able to verify the thing they were putting so much focus didn’t stop the CBC or others from heavily reporting on it all the same.

Now, for this facet of the story I could pick on any number of outlets who ran with this bit of information before it was verified.  But none of the others were quite so smug about taking such an obvious risk.  Rosemary Barton, for one, has mistaken luck for providence.  “I should probably tag some people in this but I won’t,” the National co-anchor tweeted Tuesday after it was confirmed by Facebook the post was real*.

I wonder if Barton would have been quite so bold had the post turned out to be fake.  I presume not.  And that’s the trouble, if it had been fake, we’d be in all sorts of trouble.

Both of the incidents are emblematic of a problem that happens time and time again.  The only difference between them is the second turned out to be true.

In his compelling book Columbine, David Cullen traces the origins of the first modern school shooting.  But more than that, he untangles the myths and false narratives that sprung up very early in that tragedy.  He give particular focus to the idea the two shooters were part of the “Trench Coat Mafia” and were targeting jocks and others who had bullied them in a methodical revenge plan.

The plot as many remember it — I know I certainly did — was a story of two loners taking their revenge on the people who tormented them most as part of some goth pseudo-cult.  That myth started very early, in the first hours of reporting, and never really let go.  But the two killers weren’t part of the Trench Coat Mafia.

“TV journalists were actually careful.  They used attribution and disclaimers like ‘believed to be’ or ‘described as.’ …Only a handful of students mentioned the TCM during the first five hours of CNN coverage — virtually all fed from local news stations.  But reporters homed in on the idea.  They were responsible about how they addressed the rumours, but blind to the impact of how often,” Cullen writes.

This sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

That’s all from a book published eight years ago, about an event ten years before that.  The lessons in it are stark.  It lays out how a cascade of loose reporting and a media feedback loop hardened into a false narrative the public, because they were told it was the truth, quite obviously believed it.

In the days since the attack in Toronto, we’re already starting to see a narrative form on who this person was and what led him to kill so many people.  But this is based on scant information, gleaned in the early days.

A host of factors, laid out like a chain through time, led this man here to kill at least ten people.  What we have now are only a few of those links.  Rushing to conclusions will only hide from us the truth of what happened.

It would be nice if we in the media kept that in mind as we chase glory through the streets.

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* It seems Facebook has a policy to pull down the accounts of accused mass murderers, which is good.  But announcing that policy the day after the post has been taken down is not the best way to go about things, perhaps.

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from Robert Hiltz     @robert_hiltz

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