Editorial: Decency Should Flourish in Times of Crisis, Not Dissolve
The Chicago Tribune blew their reputation- and crushed public trust- when their best guess in the 1948 presidential election turned out to be dead wrong. (stock image)
By Patrick Lynn
Friday and Saturday was hectic for City-Times staff.
Don’t misunderstand: our version of “hectic” is far different from that of law enforcement- and of eyewitnesses in Plover who say they saw something unsettling or frightening go down on Friday night. Staffers worked throughout the night Friday to confirm any tiny piece of information relative to what was initially referred to as “an incident” on Highway 54 in Plover.
Confirmation finally came shortly after 2 PM on Saturday, when local law enforcement verified there had been an officer-involved shooting, but not before rumors on social media painted Friday night Plover as a war zone. Assertions varied: a dead suspect and a police officer suffering stab wounds; a shoot-out with stray bullets hitting nearby buildings; a gun-wielding drunk; and an incident with connections to an earlier bank robbery in Hatley. Various news websites have even been so brazen as to reveal the names of some of those allegedly involved- though admittedly without confirmation.
One eyewitness claimed to have a snapped a photograph of a dead body from the scene, then boasted about having posted it on Facebook, saying, “It’s news and the people deserve to know.”
You’ve no doubt seen some of these rumors already. We’ve been working overtime to control what’s being posted to our own social media sites- and you should know why.
Times of crisis can turn anyone into a gawker. Case in point: in May Plover saw an officer-involved shooting following a break-in at the home of an off-duty Portage Co. Sheriff’s Deputy. While the Dept. of Justice took over that crime scene soon after the shooting, confirmed information was frustratingly slow to arise. In that situation, some 12 hours lapsed before law enforcement would even confirm the public was not in danger. The ambiguity from law enforcement in that situation did, in part, drive a social media explosion involving speculation ranging from the hilarious to the potentially libelous. One individual suggested via Facebook that an officer had shot a man having an affair with his wife. Few of those commenting via social media, or anonymously on this website, seemed to have any qualms making such claims, or sharing first and last names of those they believed to be involved.
Indeed, it’s not a new phenomenon. But it’s still surprising to see just how oblivious some folks are to their own level of indecency and disrespect, particularly when commenting under their true identities and without concern for the damage they cause.
Friday’s incident was no exception, with too many partaking in an apparent contest of “I heard” statements via social media. It has the unfortunate side effect of undermining the job of the honest news media, which employs an often- arduous process of checks and balances to verify information prior to publishing.
If you recall the major miscue of national media in 2011: Arizona Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords was falsely declared dead by MSNBC, CNN and Fox News after being shot in the head during a public appearance in Tuscan. Her death initially was reported by NPR before other major networks ran the same story, without having independently verified the information. Giffords today is alive and relatively well, having largely retired from public life.
Today, just about anyone can report the news, thanks to social media. It’s not something that can be controlled- which is both good and bad. Reporting news “live from the field”- as the City-Times often does- has become an invaluable tool for distributing breaking news- though sometimes it may not get the same editorial treatment for grammar and spelling due to fast- moving circumstances. But toss in a regular citizen who happens to be in the right place at the right time with an ax to grind, incomplete information and no verification procedure, and you’ve got yourself one heck of a rumor in the making.
The continual growth of social media use comes with caveats that aren’t as obvious to users because long-range effects don’t unfold in the same shared experience. It’s a virtual meeting place which, regardless of privacy settings, is public and shareable and open to outside interpretation. Many don’t realize it lacks the privacy found within the same four walls as a locker room, bedroom or family dinner table. Yet still, many treated Friday’s shooting as though it they were far removed from it and with little regard for their neighbors and fellow community members.
Some comments made on social media were reflective of the values held by the majority of our community. It’s those values of caring and respect that I believe are held by a majority who simply happen to be silent, or absent from social media. At least, it’s what I truly hope.
According to a news release from the Plover Police Department, the shooting on August 8 was widely miscued via social media users, once again proving too many jump to judge without having all the facts. We still don’t have all the facts- but that’s why we shouldn’t judge. To do so is damaging to the reputation of a law enforcement officer who has currently not been accused of, or charged with, committing any crime; it also works against the media and it turns news consumers into a bunch of punks eager for dash cam footage or a crime scene photo.
If that’s your angle, we wish you the best of luck on your upcoming appearance of the Jerry Springer Show.