Call it news event as Rorschach test.
It was only about 10:50 a.m. on Sunday, and very little was known about exactly what had happened in Orlando but that didn’t seem to stop politicians and pundits from making some definitive statements, often in highly partisan terms.
If you favored gun control, this was further evidence of the legislative failures to stop slaughter. If you were wary of Muslims, this was an opportunity to paint an entire faith as terrorists. If you supported gay rights, this was a hate crime targeting the LGBT community.
In too many cases, news outlets were busy amplifying the politics of blame.
“This is not a hate crime,” Sebastian Gorka, a counterrorism expert, said on Fox News. He demanded that President Obama must “stop the political correctness” in a response that hadn’t yet been made. What happened in Orlando was clearly “part of a military assault,” implicating forces of global jihad.
On CNN, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) declared that this was clearly terrorism, although at that point no one really knew. “If common sense holds true . . . this is the new face of the war on terror . . . something we’ve never had to confront before.”
Some news organizations were emphasizing that the massacre had happened at a gay club during a period of Pride celebrations; others, according to Sarah Kate Ellis, president of the LGBT advocacy group GLAAD, “lagged behind”on this point. “They were tiptoeing around it,” she said. Gun control was front and center for some but hardly mentioned elsewhere.
On social media, everyone had fled to corners early. James Ball of BuzzFeed tweeted: “Legions of homophobes, Islamaphobes and plenty of anti-Semites vying for worst comment on the day.” He suggested it was a very good day to go offline, but it seemed unlikely that many would follow such advice.
Fingerpointing was on full display in the early hours of the reporting on the nation’s most deadly mass shooting.
“The hype cycle is operating at great volume and speed, and we haven’t yet figured out how to counteract that,” said Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. “We’re better at acknowledging now that we don’t know everything factually ,” she said, but when it comes to challenging the political narratives that spring up, “we really don’t have best practices figured out.”
Because of the need to fill time and space, and the limited knowledge of what happened, media outlets can go very quickly to round after round of “speculation and supposition,” said Frank Sesno, a 21-year veteran of CNN who runs the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. He called the early hours of reporting on huge breaking news events “the most difficult and dangerous time.”
Economics is part of the problem. Because of the business-driven need to develop and keep the largest possible audience, news organizations can find themselves “exploiting the news rather than covering it,” said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, who has written frequently on the subject of media practices in the digital age. Because of this, Orlando can become “a cudgel for gun control” or a “cudgel to clamp down on terrorism.”
Is there any way out? Or does the public simply have to bring a large helping of skepticism to its media consumption and assume that much of what it’s hearing is driven by politics?
Bell said she sees some progress, at least in terms of getting facts right. After the massacre of schoolchildren at Newtown, Conn., in 2012, she said, many news organizations realized the hazards of speed and the need to find new methods of verification. The coverage of the Boston marathon bombing, she said, reflected the learning that had taken place.
There are pockets of cautious behavior. Philip Mudd, formerly of the CIA and a commentator on CNN Sunday morning, pushed back against efforts to equate the Orlando killings and the Paris massacre: “Don’t compare this to Paris yet. I don’t see that.”
And NPR, in recent months, began publishing an explanation to its audience about how it handles breaking news, and what expectations should be.
After spending a few hours Sunday morning on Twitter, Bell found herself thinking about what she would tell students about what she had seen.
“What are the protocols? What are the best practices? I don’t think we know yet,” she said. “We’re still learning how to metabolize these events in a mature way.”
There’s certainly ample room for improvement — and very sadly, there is every reason to think that there will be other chances to get it right.
Correction: An earlier version of this column stated that, at 10:50 a.m., the death toll was still being given as 20. Law enforcement officials had updated it to as many as 50 by that time.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan