Assassination attempt shows new media's faults

Monday, January 10, 2011

We once used an e-mail program that had a great feature. Type in a few words, and you might get a message like "This message contains words that some might find offensive," or the message might receive a "tone" flag or other indicator that you might not really want to send it off in cyberspace.

Time was, you had to sit down with a pen and paper, think about what you were going to write, find a stamp and envelope, and wait an hour or more before dropping it in the mail.

If you worked for a newspaper, you typed the words out on paper -- triple spaced -- and handed it to your editor, who went over it with a fine-toothed comb, made corrections and suggestions, retyped it, handed it to a typesetter who put it into whatever form it needed to give it to the press operator, who printed thousands of copies to be distributed through paper carriers and the post office to the final consumers who finally read it.

Many eyes saw the copy between the writer and reader, and hours if not days passed before the process was complete.

And, only the chosen few owned the means of distribution; a press and delivery network that made mass communications possible.

Saturday's assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is an example of how much things have changed.

The congresswoman was shot in the head while conducting one of her regular meetings with constituents in Tucson, and was still in surgery when NPR reported that she had died of her injuries.

The news was immediately picked up by all three cable news networks, Reuters, the Yahoo! News site, CBS and NBC. To its credit, ABC was more cautious, quoting both reports that she had died and her communications director saying she was still alive; AP never reported the false information.

If it were just the "official" news organizations, of course, that might be something easily rectified.

The thing is, you don't have to own a printing press, radio or television tower to spread your message. Unfortunately, anyone with Internet access can spread their ideas worldwide, whatever the merit, with the touch of a button.

Yes, critics have just as much power to counteract the falsehoods, but too many of us use the Web to reinforce our own prejudices instead of seeking the truth.

Our only hope as a society is for voices of reason to find a large enough audience to prevail.

The greatest immediate tragedy is that Giffords was struck down doing her job, meeting with constituents and working hard to be a good congresswoman.

We pray for her complete recovery and extend our sympathies to the others gunned down in this outrageous incident.

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