Media Frenzy: How to deal with a crisis.
Michoel Lipman, Founder
Chareidio Global News Network
December 1, 2008
News media never pervades our consciousness as much as in a crisis. When something awful happens, such as the tragic terror attack in Mumbai last week, one of our first reactions, unfortunately, is to seek out the news media for answers to our questions, which it provides in overabundance, sharing every shred of available information with little regard for it’s accuracy or substance. Crises, especially in drawn-out situations amplify our reliance on these news sources because they seemingly require us to be constantly updated in order to remain informed. In this most recent instance, several religious Jewish news media outlets joined the bandwagon, providing coverage 24/6, garnering the news from sources that religious people themselves would feel uncomfortable frequenting, and disseminating it sometimes verbatim.
Any comment, testimony or statement, official or not, is prey for inclusion in news media coverage, as long as it ‘informs’ enough to stimulate an emotional response that will drive traffic back to the same news source for another bite later. This past week, a few religious portals went so far as to embed live video from CNN — a secular television news channel — beaming into homes several hundred thousands bytes-worth of TV news featuring Indian anchorwomen, some clad immodestly, declaring with controlled hysteria that they lacked a clue as to what was happening inside the numerous buildings under attack.
In the case of the Mumbai crisis, the perceived need for information felt crucial to Jews globally, who worried about the outcome in the city’s Chabad House. Nonetheless, reporting the events myself, I was dismayed by what I perceived as news sites taking advantage of the public’s fear and "need to know" in order to advance their reader growth and "number of hits" (which translates directly into increased advertising revenues).
I examined the extensive reporting of the crisis on one particular Jewish website that tries hard to keep people ‘well informed’. Reviewing the updates carefully, I categorized each entry, marking every sentence or paragraph according to whether I thought the text contained confirmed material events; material events ancillary to the main story; speculative statements; dubious or unconfirmed reports; uninformative remarks; or comments serving primarily to validate or authenticate the news portal for marketing purposes. The results were interesting:
Of 3968 words appearing over the day as updates to the main story, 714 words (18%) were spent communicating significant material events, with an additional 372 words (9.3%) reporting on material events albeit of ancillary information. Approximately 700 words I found uninformative, repetitive or unnecessary. Astoundingly, there were over 900 words (22%) of seriously questionable and speculative reporting, tagged by descriptive words such as ‘unconfirmed’, ‘possibly’, ‘may have been seen’, and so on.
Granted that for some, these results may not seem so bad, and that another person’s count of the same text might garner different results, I found the exercise helpful for me in working to clarify where to draw the line between keeping people properly informed, and joining in a secular media feeding frenzy.
Here are my personal conclusions:
1. News updates in a crisis should be restricted to substantive material events that are confirmed to be reasonably reliable, in order to avoid wasting time and spreading rumors (or panic).
2. When an update to a news story is presented, it should contain a time stamp in addition to some indication of when the next update will be posted, so that the reader is freed of the need to constantly revisit the site to check for the latest entry.
3. When possible, a news site should compile the substance of each new update into a timeline that quickly recaps events without requiring the reader to spend time on repetitive information.
4. Under no circumstances should a religious Jewish news site embed, link or stream secular television news on its portal.
I am not a halachic or moral authority, nor am I pretending to be one. I share my private opinion; one that will undoubtedly come to bear on how news is reported on my own Chareidio Global News site.
The author, Michoel Lipman, is founder and editor of the Chareidio Global News, a digest of international news stories delivered with the religious reader in mind, sensitively, and without sensationalism, rhetoric or gossip. Chareidio daily news is available by telephone at 972-2-537-8085, and by email, RSS or podcast subscription, and at www.Chareidio.com.