The shooting in Connecticut: Reflecting on accuracy, authority and the Net.

December 15, 2012 — 3 Comments

I wish to reflect on the tragic events that occurred yesterday to in Newtown, Connecticut.  I wish to reflect on my process of coming to know about the shootings and terrible events. I am also wondering about truth in journalism and authority online.

I heard the news first through my friends on Facebook and my tweeps on Twitter.  I scanned cryptic messages about the horrible events as well as parents reflecting on the unimaginable sadness of never picking their kid up from school again. The emotional dots were there within the fog of 140 characters, status updates and links.  The tid bits of information about the events were in a vacuum of facts, authority and context.  I followed the links and made the web searches to join the dots in a fast-fact-finding mission to understand.  I triangulated, Howard Rheinbold would be proud.  Or maybe I didn’t, I just moved forward in a messy way answering the ecology of temptation and clicked my way until my last click. I ended at the Globe and Mail site.  “Authority is the last page in the linked chain you visit – the page whose links you choose not to click on” says David Weinberger in his book Too Big to Know.  So, I grant authority to the Globe and Mail, since once I get there, I was satisfied that I had information that was accurate, balanced and fair.  I started with my friends and emotions and the fast thinking. I ended with giving the badge of authority by giving my attention.

Today, the morning after of the sadness, I found myself reading George Coursos’ blog post, I feel pushed further to consider the need for accuracy.  I feel a need to consider accuracy, authority and the facts. After all, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” (Attributed)

George Couros laments that our bastions of information such as reputable news sites must be accurate above all.  I agree, so would the Society of Professional Journalists in their Code of Ethics.  I also think the issue of accuracy on the Net plays in to the much larger issue about knowledge and information. Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows certainly speaks to the risk of the Net and information online.  George Couros brings to light the potential for harm when misinformation about children’s and people’s lives is posted hastily.  This isn’t just an affront on facts and correct information: getting it wrong yesterday is damaging to individual and collectives souls. It’s a first person trauma and/or vicarious trauma that is hard to undo.  What happened yesterday highlights the interwingularity of the Internet, but at an emotional level, we realize that this mix of information and social media can hurt, and hurt badly.

We must be so careful to whom we grant our attention. “No one can be informed without her consent. Information requires for its transmittal the user’s grant of attention.” But what was highlighted for me through George Coursos’ post is that even when your attention is aimed at reputable sources, you can still get burned with misinformation.

If we know that facts can be tenuous and accuracy among professionals will vary how to we protect our hearts and our minds?  I think in the absence of trustworthy sources, where every source must be questioned, and authority is not obvious and dubious, it is the reader that must position herself and create the context as well as do the fact checking.  Yes, it is terribly sad that the facts were not accurate. But, are we looking at new news with old expectations? Can we expect fast thinking and reporting to be true? Howard Reingold would have suggested triangulation. Finding the facts on multiple sites and cross checking.   Crap detection includes, according to Reingold in Net Smart (p. 79) checking on the author, the author’s sources, using or to check the traffic of the site, comments and general as a “credibility meter.”  Where did our clicks stop when reading on the events of yesterday?  Where you stop is where you attribute authority, be it deserved or not.

But there might not have been enough time for this information to be available.  It was happening fast.  Which raises another issue.  Even if the facts were not accurate. Even with a storm of misinformation, was it beneficial to know quickly what had happened?  The early reports were not correct, but were those reports useful in some way?  Misinformation may existed, but as an early warning of what went down, maybe it’s better to have a bit of what is going on and then be responsible for putting it together correctly with triangulation and awareness that authority isn’t in someone’s credentials, title, training or where they are posting. Authority is given from the consumer and reader to the tweet, author, or website.

I have recently begun to follow George Couros’ blog and read his tweets regularly. I believe he has excellent ability to hone his attention, to turn on his crap detectors, and to give authority to worthy sources.  I agree that accuracy ought to be a primary concern for journalists, and this point would be hard to argue from any point of view.  However, I do wonder about the responsibility of the reader/consumer in these cases.  I wonder about our responsibility to award authority carefully.  I wonder about what we can learn from this in order to hone our understanding of what we must be teaching our students about consuming information, especially with emotionally charged topics – where our humanity and hearts are at risk of injury.

How do I teach my students about the new version of authority?  How do I teach students about facts from ‘reliable’ sources?  How do I teach triangulation and crap detection? Particularly when the emotions run high and in intense situations where most humans are notoriously brain stem thinkers?

Information is changing. Authority is changing. Facts aren’t the facts.  What does the curriculum look like now? What is our relationship with information and the network of information?  What is true, who are the experts, whom do we trust?

Most importantly, I am so sorry for the families and the community of Newtown, Connecticut. My heart aches for the children and the families most.



  • David Weinberger

    Thanks, Michelle, for this combination of heart and head.

    You write “Even with a storm of misinformation, was it beneficial to know quickly what had happened?” The temporal dimension seems to me to be crucial. I can’t think of a reason why I needed to know about this tragedy as it was happening and before the information had had a chance to settle down. Certainly if I were in the town, I’d want to know immediately, but otherwise, my knowing instantly instead of six hours later doesn’t seem to me to make a difference.

    Nevertheless, it’s not that we have much a choice about this. I disagree with Jay Rosen on this: Our attention is claimed more than it is bestowed. So, I heard about the shootings a few hours later because I had been off the Web. But I heard about it because the news was flooding through every informational pore. I got emails, it was on the front page of Reddit, etc. Since we cannot avoid premature information, it seems to me to be important that we all recognize (as we probably all do) that earlier info is risky info; it is the duty of the provider of that info to note that it is premature (e.g., “According to early reports…” or some such).

    On the more positive side, our communication medium not only reports news faster (and thus more riskily) than ever, it also enables us to vet it and go deep into it faster. That’s what our social media do for us, from Facebook to Reddit. That’s us figuring out together what happened and what we should believe. At its best, it is truly awesome.

    Anyway, I intended just to thank you for the post, and to call attention to your quick question about the trouble with timeliness…

  • Howard Rheingold

    Thank you for this. I really don’t pretend to know the big answers. I’m just looking for what people can do. And you put your finger on it — it starts with education. We all need to think like detectives — or good journalists — when we are tempted to pass along information from social media about fast-breaking news where we don’t have access to primary sources. “Where you stop is where you attribute authority, be it deserved or not.”

  • George Couros

    Hey Michelle!

    Sorry for the delay in comment but definitely wanted to come back and revisit this. Here is something from your post that really resonated with me:

    “However, I do wonder about the responsibility of the reader/consumer in these cases. I wonder about our responsibility to award authority carefully. I wonder about what we can learn from this in order to hone our understanding of what we must be teaching our students about consuming information, especially with emotionally charged topics – where our humanity and hearts are at risk of injury.”

    I think that you nail some really important points here. It is definitely part of our work (as educators) to work with people to turn on the “crap detectors”, but your comment about it being emotionally charged is when journalists REALLY have to step up. Taking something in a wikipedia article and checking it for accuracy is a lot easier to understand than something like what happened at Sandy Hook. Journalists should realize that because of how much there reporting is going to have an impact on someone, there work should be focused on accuracy. Yes we should take all information with a grain of salt, but when you are talking about the death of children (that feels horrific to even write), you better make sure you get the information right. Just my opinion.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.