Once upon a time I wanted to be a journalist. Weighing its impending death against my impending student loan debt, I switched majors to Public Relations. I am quite grateful for my time as a student journalist both in academia and practice with my high school and college newspapers. I feel I am equipped to critically think about the media both from a public relations perspective (follow the money) and with understanding of basic journalistic tenets (How many sources does the story have? Are they of multiple viewpoints?).
Let’s talk for a minute about sources.
In the day and age of “infotainment,” with unqualified prettidiots (pretty idiots) yelling at us from the anchor desk, it should be no surprise that sometimes those “local wo/man on the street” people are also selected not for their knowledge, but for their “entertainment factor.”
Here in San Francisco, the media has jumped on the “tech war” story and tried to go at it from every angle. Lately, they’ve been frothing over a woman named Sarah Slocum who went international about being attacked for wearing Google Glass to a bar.
Turns out: she’s likely mentally ill.
Seems like her credibility could’ve been easily researched by any of the outlets giving her 15 minutes of fame. Restraining orders aren’t a hard thing to find. But no, the media wanted ratings. And to the public’s discredit, we ate that shit up.
Will any of the news outlets that gave her a soapbox go back and say “Oh, sorry about that! We were talking to a crazy lady?”
In the meantime, depending on which side of the story you sided with, the reputations of either or both Google or Molotov’s bar have been tarnished. Both will obviously recover, but both have wasted time and money on responding to a proverbial “girl who cried wolf.”
Sadly, the use of mentally ill sources is more common than you’d think. Two incidents come to mind that I’ve personally encountered, described below.
When a college student at our school newspaper, one of our own reporters (and my supervisor) fabricated a story about voter fraud on campus during the 2000 election. As mentally ill people can be (paging cult leaders!), he was quite convincing. Our staff bought it. We covered it. It went national. It was a mistake in “sloppy journalism” hard learned. But again, why did the “real” reporters out there not discover it either? It was just another angle in the drama of the Bush/Gore botched election. Sensational! In the end, our university’s reputation was questioned before the story slowly died with the news cycle.
Later, in my professional career, I watched from the sidelines as my organization was scrutinized almost nightly by the media using a source (former employee) we all knew was “off.” As the story spiraled and his accusations became more grandiose, we knew internally that the guy had a major screw loose. We actually knew that he had restraining orders against him and became fearful that he may become violent at the workplace. But we stood by as local news placed him on a pedestal each night as a “whistleblower”, despite the fact that none of his “fact” could be corroborated. Sadly, several weeks into the whole incident, perhaps as the media began to catch on that their “golden goose” wasn’t entirely truthful, this individual took his own life. The media dropped the story entirely, but never once told the public “whoops, sorry…we totally fucked up.” Again, the perception of our organization was tarnished with no regards for the hardworking men and women who kept it running safely and ethically.
It’s quite funny to me when journalists crack jokes about “PR people” and ethics, seeing as their irresponsible behavior can also have dire consequences.
Lest I seem insensitive, I do really feel for these mentally ill folks. They’re easily dismissed as “nutcases” for those who follow the story to the bitter end. But at the end they desperately need help that our broken system can’t give them.
I also don’t want to discredit whistleblowers either. They’re critical to our society. I know people get enraged when their personal lives are put out in the media and I vacillate on that too. But I also think a lot of trouble could be saved before the media used them a source in the first place.
*Life has gotten the best of my attempt at Lenten blogging, but I needed to get these thoughts down.