Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"We Have to Do Something!" - An Encouragement and Warning in the Democratizing Power of Social Media

Comments prompted by the NYTimes reporting that increased media coverage (of the Kermit Gosnell abortion/murder trial in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) is resulting from pressure exerted through social media.

I confess. I read them. It’s not a guilty pleasure. Because it’s not pleasurable. But I read them: blogs, e-mails, Facebook posts, and Tweets. I consume a fairly regular diet of indignant cries: “We have to do something about this.”

But first, I want to know what the “this” really is. Then, I try to consider carefully whether the “something” proposed is likely to be effective, preferably without causing collateral damage. From time to time I am reminded vividly that where we get our information about the “this” is just as important as determining the “safe and effective” means of doing “something” about it. Here’s an example, though, that inspires me almost as much as it sickens me.

The NYTimes includes what they rightly warn are “grisly details” in their report (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/16/us/online-furor-draws-press-to-abortion-doctors-trial.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130416&_r=0) that “an online furor” rising primarily through social media has provoked increased coverage by national news outlets of the Gosnell abortion/murder trial taking place in Philadelphia. As one who has long-ago despaired of effecting change by “writing their congressman,” the influence of “readers (who) e-mailed” editors regarding their newspapers’ “deafening silence” is worth considering for a moment.

Journalistic independence and ethical, community-focused reporting have long been subjugated to the economics of socio-political and corporate marketing influences. That is, the pressures of the marketplace favor only the more acceptable (“politically-correct”) and/or sensational narratives. Thus, "If it bleeds, it leads...unless it makes one of our major advertisers or political benefactors look bad." Championing the ostensibly more democratic networks of social media, however, does not address the need to restore careful research and factual verification in the news media, nor the need to redirect editorial decisions toward serving a community’s needs more consistently. Further, it also fails to address the sad reality that much of the “reporting” disseminated through social media has little basis in fact.

In this case, commendably, social media has brought to light a story that does appear to previously have been buried due to its significant contribution to a pro-life/anti-abortion argument. Still, though, as with more limited cases of cyber-bullying on individual levels, the inaccurate, the misleading, and the inflammatory still comprise the majority of "news" posts I see on Facebook, and nearly all of the “call-to-action” e-mails I receive.

So, before raising your voice, even before raising your blood-pressure, and especially before clicking on “share,” please do "Consider the source." And where it is not cited, "Do your homework." Otherwise, we risk being distracted by indignation over the superfluous, or even the imaginary, while the more important issues erode beneath us, unnoticed and unchallenged. There clearly is power in the networks of social media. But we must not only decide to use that power for good and not evil, we should also not waste it on the sensational, imaginary, and nonsensical topics on which most diatribes are centered.

And even where the problem is verifiably accurate, please consider prayerfully the solution being proposed. Remember: The people of Hamelin never had to worry ever again about the rats biting their children. Because after the Pied Piper removed the rats, he removed their children as well.

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