My friends and family know how unobservant I can be.  When I'm focused on one thing, all else recedes to near invisibility.  At the grocery store I can pass a good friend without knowing he is there, because, well, I'm looking for food, not friends.  Advertising is more or less wasted on me; in a newspaper, magazine, or online I simply do not see the ads on the periphery of what I am reading.

However, that's no excuse for reading stories of the Virginia Tech tragedy and letting slide the oft-repeated comment that this was "the worst mass murder in U. S. history."  (Thanks to Tim at Random Observations for opening my eyes.)  I tend to ignore hyperbole as I ignore advertising, but this should have whacked me over the head.

I'm not belittling the tragedy; for those whose loved ones were killed it makes little difference how many others died.  Death is strikingly individual.  But I am more than annoyed at reporting inaccuracies and their mindless replication.  The death toll at Virginia Tech is not much more than one percent of that of the 9/11 attacks—less than six years later and the media have already forgotten?  What about the Oklahoma City bombing?  An obvious counterexample from 'way back in the early days of our country would be certain Indian attacks, not to mention slaughters of the Native Americans themselves, which killed more people in absolute numbers and even more dramatically when considered as a percentage of the population.  Limiting the field to school deaths, and adding "in modern times" does not help, since the Bath School bombing killed 45 people in 1927.  I'm ready to be corrected, but I think one can safely go with "the worst mass school shooting in America."  Bad enough, certainly, but far from the original headlines.

I've been around over half a century, and every single time I've seen a media report (print or TV) about a subject I knew personally, it has been inaccurate. Usually—though not always—the errors were only minor ones, introduced by a reporter who lacked either the time or the inclination to truly understand the story. Or, to give the reporters their due, it might have been equally clueless editors who fouled up the story. In any case, accuracy is sacrificed to expediency: there are deadlines, and most people won't notice or care as long as we get the general flavor of the story correct. 

These days, when the line between news story and editorial is blurred to nonexistence, even the general flavor is likely to be wrong. And our broad and high-speed communications network ensures the near-instant propagation of these errors all over the world.

Many of the news reports of Isaac's birth and death had the dates wrong, and at least one had him born in Philadelphia instead of Pittsburgh.  It can be argued that these are details that do not change the truth of the story.  (As a genealogist, however, I am reminded that the old newspapers from which I garner vital records information on my ancestors may be equally inaccurate, and for this purpose the details are the story.)  Nonetheless, the question looms large:  If I cannot trust a report in the small things, what confidence can I have in its major points?  (He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.)

The only solution I can see involves many sources, much diligence, and hard work.  Which is why we will continue to accept as truth that which we read and hear, at least if it agrees with what we already think we know.
Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, April 22, 2007 at 8:07 am | Edit
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