Month: April 2013

Boston, Baseless Speculation, and Celebrating Goodness

To say yesterday was exhausting wouldn’t do it justice. Emotions are running high in the wake of the bombings at the Boston Marathon. If you’ve seen any of the video from when the explosion took place, one thing is clear: that is what terror sounds like.

People across the country are frightened and hurting. They’re desperate for information. In some cases, they’re searching for loved ones. In others, they just want answers about what this means and what comes next. It’s a scary time.

The quest for more information has created another uncomfortable reality that’s been hard to wrap our minds around. As people took to Twitter and Facebook for news and context, they encountered a disconcerting labyrinth of conflicting reports, and sometimes genuinely offensive commentary. Anger has begun to bubble up. Fingers are being pointed towards militia groups and Al Qaeda. It doesn’t matter that we don’t have any evidence to support that finger pointing. It’s happening anyway.

So I want us to press pause. I want us to take a step back, think about what’s taken place (attack and beyond), and reflect on what it means. You might not be at a place to do so yet. That’s fine. Grieving is not a uniform process. Coping with fear is not a standard affair. But if you’re one of the people who has been calm enough to begin the finger pointing or lament the quality of the press, read on.

A Brief Recap

I’m not going to pretend to have all the details on this story, because – frankly – no one does. What I want to go over is how the story played out. There are no links to articles below, because by the time you go to click on them, the story will have changed. Here’s what we know.

Around 2:50 PM EST yesterday afternoon, around a time in the Boston Marathon where the finish line is typically most populated, two explosions occurred. Around the same time, there were reports of a fire at JFK Library. That report would later change into an explosion happening, before transitioning back into a simple fire, back to an explosion, and, finally, back to a fire not at all related to the bombings.

Authorities began scouring tape and images from the area immediately, looking for suspicious figures or abandoned packages. How the explosives got to where they did – given the tight security and ongoing sweeps – is still unknown. However, in the wake of the blasts, as spectators and runners fled, many more personal items were left behind. Given that there were two explosions, the possibility of additional explosive devices in the area could not be ruled out, and a coordinated search began. There were reports of five additional explosive devices being found.

There was a controlled third explosion in the vicinity of the initial blasts around 3:50 PM EST of a potential device. At the 5:30 PM EST press conference, it was clarified that controlled explosions did not necessarily mean they had found an explosive – just that an item was suspicious enough to warrant an abundance of caution. As of the 8:30 PM EST press conference with investigating authorities, no additional explosives had been found. After the press conference this morning, we’re still at only two.

At 4:04 PM EST, a piece was put out by the New York Post that garnered significant traction. The article indicated that there were 12 dead from the attack – a number much higher than the reports in circulation at the time.  It also indicated that law enforcement officials had confirmed they had a suspect being guarded at a local hospital. It explicitly identified the man as a Saudi national. No other source, at the time, had the story. Around 5:15 PM EST, Fox News – owned by the same company as the NY Post – confirmed it. A little while later, other major news networks started to carry the story.

At the 5:30 PM EST press conference, the Boston Police Commissioner stated in no uncertain terms that they did not have a suspect in custody. He also stated that they had a police presence in all of the hospitals for security purposes, and to take statements from individuals at the scene. The NY Post did not back down from their story. Stories of a suspect in custody at a different hospital began to circulate a little while later. At the 8:30 PM EST press conference, the Commissioner repeated that the reports circulating about a suspect were patently false across the board. The stories have continued.

That’s what we know. It’s not very much, frankly. And it will probably change dramatically over the next few days.

Before We Go Any Further…

Reporting is hard under the best of circumstances. As a blogger and commentator, my writing is much easier, and there are still days I feel like it’s impossible. If you’v ever been charged with conducting original research, you might have an idea of how difficult it is. You probably still won’t get it.

For context: imagine needing to start with a working understanding of really complex and important issues – an understanding that can take years to develop. Then envision needing to relearn a lot of what you know on a regular basis, because the important issues are ever evolving. Then think about needing to find out more information on a new angle, but the people who you know have reliable information are probably unreachable for frank comment. Remember that their standard line has already been regurgitated a dozen times over by the wires, and the rest of your sources are suspect at best. Consider what it would be like to have to vet each and every one of your sources, and consider that the depth of said vetting and the time that goes into it increases with the significance of the story.

Now imagine doing all of this on a time crunch. In most cases (and particularly with breaking news or developing stories), your reporting is perceived as most valuable if you get there first. As a reporter, you know this. Your editor does, too, and odds are, they’re going to be pushing you to go faster than you’re already pushing yourself. In a world of digital reporting, where page views fuel the bottom line via advertising, getting there first is even more important. With social media – and the character limited Twitter platform, in particular – taking center stage for breaking news, multiply all of that times ten.

Sound overwhelming and damn near impossible to get right? That’s because it is.

In a crisis, reporting gets infinitely more difficult. Those on the ground have eye witnesses as a first hand source, but eye witness accounts are frequently unreliable. When a situation is as panic filled as an attack like this one, those accounts become even less reliable, and feature fewer and fewer concrete details. In some instances, the accounts may be entirely accurate, but without context (and in a world where context is rapidly evolving), reporting on those accounts can misinform the public. For instance, when the controlled explosion took place, some were reporting a third explosion without indicating that it was being carried out by the police. Same report – different context – different meaning.

Even those looking for reports from authorities run into issues. They could always wait for the official comments, of course. The problem is that those comments rarely feature the details people are asking for, and everyone tends to get them at the same time, limiting ability for a speed advantage.

At that point, lower level figures with the authorities seem a prime option for getting information. After all, if they’re working the same case, they should all know what’s going on, right? Wrong – specifically wrong when it’s a scene like the one we saw in Boston. Authorities try to centralize communication as much as possible, but even then, the information flow is imperfect. Remember all the reports yesterday with conflicting information? Remember how most of them were citing some sort of member of the authorities as their sources?

Even when the information is right, the slightest variation in choice of words can make all the difference. Particularly with Twitter’s character limits, statements from authorities can be made to look like declarative statements, even when hedging language was initially used by the source in question. So even if the initial reporting is accurate, that pesky MT (modified tweet) tag can pervert the message.

Sensing a lot of “even if” statements? That’s the point. It’s just that complicated.

To be clear, when I say reporters, in this instance, I’m talking about individuals on the ground, providing basic reports of information written for a news source (via social media or published articles) or on live television. I do not mean commentators and pundits. By and large (with a handful of notable exceptions), commentators were not reporting yesterday. We’ll get to them in a minute.

The point I’m trying to make is that reporting in the midst of a crisis is extraordinarily challenging. What comes next is not a critique of the reporting we saw today. For God’s sake, how many reporters were running the marathon, and stuck around to cover the attacks?

The reporting today was never going to be perfect. There were going to be mistakes. There were going to be retractions. That was never even a question. That was not the problem.

The problem came when agenda and demonization entered the mix.

When Reactionary Goes Wrong

While the reporting – flawed at times though it may have been – was laudable, communication on the events unfolding in Boston was not as commendable across the board.

Before the smoke had even begun to clear, Alex Jones was claiming the attack a “false flag” – a phrase used to describe an allegedly covert government op intended to be presented to the public as an outside attack.

Alex Jones Tweet - Boston is a False Flag

The false flag question would get repeated again later, as someone yelled a question about it during the 8:30 PM EST press conference, but not long after Jones started to stir the pot, the more predictable fear-mongering raised its ugly head, as Fox News contributor Erik Rush tweeted:

Erik Rush blames Saudi immigrants

He also “sarcastically” suggested we should kill all the Muslims in response. He wouldn’t be the last to point fingers at the Middle East (more in a second), but not to be outdone, Chris Matthews on MSNBC’s Hardball had his own incendiary take. He started off with a helluva broad brush on domestic terrorism:

Normally, domestic terrorists, people tend to be on the far right, well that’s not a good category, just extremists, let’s call them that. Do they advertise after they do something like this? Do they try to get credit as a group or do they just hate America so much or its politics or its government that they just want to do the damage, they don’t care if they get public credit, if you will?

His guest tried to defuse the suggestion by indicating multiple parties would likely take responsibility for the attacks, but Matthews seemed determined to pursue the line of thought, saying:

But going after the Kennedy Library, not something at Bunker Hill, not something from the Freedom Trail or anything that kind of historic, but a modern political figure of the Democratic Party. Does that tell you anything?

He wasn’t completely free of the anti-Islamic fear-mongering, either – repeatedly referring to potential jihadist involvement.

Here’s the problem with all of this:

There isn’t a shred of evidence to support the speculation. We don’t know anything yet. Emotions are running high right now, and these are the folks people are turning to for guidance on what they should be afraid of, and the pundits are feeding them baseless allegations.

Typically, I give commentators and pundits a break. They’re supposed to be presenting an opinion, after all. As long as you’re getting a balanced diet of the various forms of bias we see in media, it’s not world ending. The problem here is that bias – namely, unfounded bias, also known as discriminatory rhetoric – gets digested by people with violent attitudes. Twitter has been downright ugly.

Twitter Islamaphobia over Boston Attacks(Click to enlarge)

But there were problematic responses from the left side of the debate as well, even if they manifested in a very different way. While well-intentioned, I saw an onslaught of posts talking about how people lamenting the Boston situation without also grieving for the hundreds impacted by a series of bombings in Iraq today were calloused without perspective. I saw others saying it was disgusting to decry the attacks in Boston without also decrying the innocents killed by American drone strikes. There were a sprinkling of posts saying the mourning was warranted, but asking where that mourning was for the minority populations disproportionately imprisoned.

On both sides of the aisle, there were people causing problems with the way they approached the situation.

Why It Matters

Do I think all those people ranting about “towelheads” on Twitter are about to go violently attack someone? No.

Do I think other people might pursue vigilante justice? Possibly. The Washington Post had an excellent piece detailing the expressions of condolences for the attack from the Muslim world, and the very sad fact that these expressions were frequently riddled with fear. Those fears are not unwarranted. Hate crimes against those who appeared to be of Middle Eastern or Arab descent after 9/11 surged. They continue today. Already, there are stories on Twitter describing conversations overheard discussing “taking matters into our own hands.”

On the more liberal side of things, it became about competing grief and injury. Here’s the thing: you and I can be appalled by all of these things. We do not have to express condemnation for injustice in all instances to address it in one, though. Indeed, this can muddle the conversation while alienating people who are focused on dealing with an already huge tragedy from ever considering the ideas you’re presenting.

On both sides, there was a rush to attack each other about not handling the situation properly. The combination of all this was the furthest thing possible from helpful that I can imagine in this situation. Instead of focusing on safety, and assisting those in need, and our collective grief, we saw people trading barbs with self-interest.

It’s easy to dismiss all these people as isolated examples. But think about how we address these “isolated examples.” Erik Rush is given a platform to reach millions on Fox News. Despite this not being Chris Matthew’s first major gaffe, the man still has his own show. And those ranting in social media? They come from somewhere, right? “No man is an island,” as the saying goes, and for people to think this is an appropriate approach to dealing with crisis, there have to be people around them who are saying it’s ok – or, at a minimum, not saying anything at all. We’re missing the boat here, people.

Look for the Helpers

So what does one do to respond to a crisis? They do this:

Mr Rogers

Google Docs I have a place to offer(click to view document)

Patton Oswalt

darkness

They celebrate these people. They donate blood so quickly and in such a high volume that the Red Cross is turning people away. But perhaps, most of all, they remember this, from The Atlantic:

How well this attack succeeds depends much less on what happened in Boston than by our reactions in the coming weeks and months. Terrorism isn’t primarily a crime against people or property. It’s a crime against our minds, using the deaths of innocents and destruction of property as accomplices. When we react from fear, when we change our laws and policies to make our country less open, the terrorists succeed, even if their attacks fail. But when we refuse to be terrorized, when we’re indomitable in the face of terror, the terrorists fail, even if their attacks succeed.
Don’t glorify the terrorists and their actions by calling this part of a “war on terror.” Wars involve two legitimate sides. There’s only one legitimate side here; those on the other are criminals. They should be found, arrested, and punished. But we need to be vigilant not to weaken the very freedoms and liberties that make this country great, meanwhile, just because we’re scared.
Empathize, but refuse to be terrorized. Instead, be indomitable — and support leaders who are as well. That’s how to defeat terrorists.
What’s the point of this ramble? It’s to say that my heart is with Boston. It’s to note that we are incredibly far away from having all the facts right now, and that the current reporting, while at turns admirable, is not necessarily reliable. It’s to ask you to avoid baseless speculation that does nothing to help the situation, but a lot to further divide us. It’s to point out that this kind of division is what so many attacks hope to foster. It’s to remind you that in the midst of chaos, there is still good in the world. It’s to urge you to be a part of that good.
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Gun Control, Sandy Hook, and Dylan Hockley

The other day, a friend of mine – who I respect and love dearly – commented on Facebook that he was tired of hearing about Sandy Hook. He lamented that policy was being driven by emotional ploys, and that the media was manipulating public opinion.

Now, this friend is a reasonable individual. We have pretty pronounced differences in opinion when it comes to matters of public policy, and gun control is no exception. He’s not opposed to all forms of regulation; he just thinks we need to be smart about it. I can get behind that.

But I bristled at dismissing the Sandy Hook stories as part of our dialogue on gun control. It was the same reaction I had when people voiced similar frustrations in the wake of Aurora, or the Sikh Temple shooting, or the Virginia Tech massacre, or the Tuscon shootings… or any of the other dozens of mass shootings.

The thing is, if we exclude these personal stories, all we’re left with is data. Data isn’t necessarily bad; indeed, it’s a critical part of effective decision making. In this instance, there is data which suggests gun control, when implemented carefully and consistently (consistency being the key), can decrease gun violence. Such data is frequently (and sometimes, to some extent, with merit) criticized and dismissed by those opposed to increased gun control. The problem is that these debates over data points remove us from the reason we’re having the conversation to begin with: human lives.

Rachel Maddow had a truly fantastic segment at the beginning of her show the other night on the impact of the Sandy Hook narratives on the Senate’s approach to the gun control debate. Watch it. It’s not long, and it’s important. And the rest of this post won’t make much sense if you don’t.

I cried when I watched it live. I’ve cried every time I’ve watched it since. Part of that has to do with the fact that my daughter is on the autism spectrum. She has one of those weighted blankets at Nana and Papa’s house for sleepovers. When the world gets to be too much for her to process, a hug is the only thing that works. And Dylan…

I can’t even write about it. I’ve tried, for days, and the words come out mangled by grief. There is no way to gracefully express the kind of heartbreak associated with this story.

Once again, I am reminded of the importance of narrative. In the wake of past mass shootings, the reaction has been predictable. It starts with disbelief, and is quickly peppered with political statements. Then there is outrage over the existence of those political statements. Eventually, with the feeling that it’s a lost cause, the conversation fades into the background. The reason that a shooting which took place in December is still in the spotlight in April is that these parents aren’t letting us forget about it. These courageous families have put their lives and sorrow and pain on public display. It won’t bring their children back, but it might help someone else’s child, and that’s why they keep fighting. Regardless of where you stand on the gun control debate, most will cede that it’s an important conversation to have. The fact that these narratives are forcing us to have it makes them important, as well.

Whether the conversation would proceed was in question for a stretch there. After all, the NRA was scoring the vote to even hear the debate on the Senate floor. Let me repeat: they are evaluating whether or not Senators are effective defenders of gun rights based on how quickly they shut the conversation down altogether.

(As if I needed another reason to hate the NRA. Seriously, any group that actively works to PREVENT DISCOURSE is not an organization worth supporting. For being such huge fans of the Constitution, it seems like the Second Amendment is the only part they think has value.)

Now, I’m not saying that we should pass policy based on narratives alone; that’s gotten us into trouble on more than one occasion. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a place in our policy making approach. In this instance, it was the collection of narratives from Sandy Hook that forced us to move forward in the gun control policy debate. It was stories like Dylan’s that made the difference. Dylan was taken from the world much too soon, but even so, his contributions to our well-being may, in the end, be beyond measure.

They Only Live Who Dare

TRIGGER WARNING:

The following includes discussions that may serve as a trigger for victims of sexual violence.
Please be advised. 

Talking about rape culture can be depressing stuff. First there’s the content matter – it’s just stomach churning. Then there’s the absolute failure in fostering understanding sometimes. Just today, I noticed a bump in traffic from a message board. I popped over to see what the conversation looked like, only to read comments about how I’m some sort of feminazi, and exemplary of all the reasons people hate feminists. Sometimes you end up feeling like you’re running full-force into a brick wall… over and over and  over again.

But that’s why it’s important to take a step back and appreciate the victories, however small they might seem.

In one of my recent posts on rape culture, I referenced the unfolding Rick Ross scandal as an example of rape culture. For those of you who didn’t follow that story, Ross wound up in hot water for a portion of his lyrics in the song U.O.E.N.O., where he sang:

Put molly all in her champagne/ She ain’t even know it / I took her home and I enjoyed that/ She ain’t even know it.

To be clear, lyrics like these are part of rape culture. It glamorizes date rape, categorizes it as no big deal, and makes it seem like a fun joke. It ‘s not the first time a songster has erred in this way, and it probably won’t be the last. But what came next is way more important than the song itself.

Activists and concerned citizens took to social media to lament the lyrics and what they represented. Don’t get me wrong – there were still a great deal of people defending him and his lyrics – but it opened up a huge amount of conversation on rape culture. Anytime that happens, it can be hard to not get blue over the fact that we’re having the conversation for the umpteenth time, but the way the conversation progressed in this instance is noteworthy, because it wasn’t just you and me who were rattled. For whatever reason, this story had lots of bigger names weighing in.

One of my favorite examples was the exchange that took place between musicians Lupe Fiasco and Talib Kweli. While the two are not completely innocent themselves, they wound up having an in depth conversation about the responsibility of artists to their community, and how important it was to better address the pervasive violence triumphed in too many rap songs. You can read more here, but it was awesome to see two celebrities engaging in a mature and measured conversation about cultural struggles, and rising above them.

But in this instance, talking was not enough, and money talks. An effort spearheaded by the group UltraViolet called on Reebok to drop their endorsement deal with Ross. Though this prompted Ross to put out an apology, the initial go round almost made things worse:

It was misunderstanding with a lyric, a misinterpretation where the term ‘rape’ wasn’t used. And I would never use the term ‘rape’ in my records.

For the record, this is, again, an example of rape culture. The idea that the word rape is the problem is a part of the problem. People weren’t angry because they thought they heard him say “rape.” They were angry because his lyrics made it seem like drugging a girl and having your way with her was desirable and hilarious. Dismissing that disgust as a “misunderstanding” was essentially an attempt at sweeping the issue under the rug.

But there were people fighting the good fight. The New York Times summed up the efforts quite nicely:

UltraViolet began circulating an online petition asking Reebok to end its endorsement deal with Mr. Ross. In the first 24 hours the petition received 50,000 signatures, Ms. Chaudhary said. A week later the group organized a protest at the Reebok flagship store, in Midtown Manhattan, in which about 100 people held signs denouncing rape and began sending Twitter messages to Reebok. That day members of UltraViolet also started a phone campaign, calling Reebok’s headquarters in Canton, Mass., to complain about Mr. Ross.

The phone calls were necessary, Ms. Chaudhary said, since earlier efforts to talk to Reebok executives had failed. “Basically we felt like we had no option,” she said.

As UltraViolet’s campaign gained momentum, other feminist bloggers and commentators weighed in, among them Rosa Clemente, an activist whose YouTube video responding to Mr. Ross’s lyrics was viewed almost 17,000 times.

The group also bought digital ads on Facebook that were aimed at people who “liked” the Reebok Facebook page and ads online that were aimed at people who were using search engines to look up “Reebok.” The final step was a letter sent to the company on behalf of 550 rape survivors.

AND IT WORKED. Reebok officially dropped Rick Ross with this statement:

Reebok holds our partners to a high standard, and we expect them to live up to the values of our brand…Unfortunately, Rick Ross has failed to do so. While we do not believe that Rick Ross condones sexual assault, we are very disappointed he has yet to display an understanding of the seriousness of this issue or an appropriate level of remorse.

What’s more, Rick Ross actually issued an apology worth listening to. While a day late and a dollar short, it was precisely what should have been said the first time around:

Before I am an artist, I am a father, a son, and a brother to some of the most cherished women in the world. So for me to suggest in any way that harm and violation be brought to a woman is one of my biggest mistakes and regrets. As an artist, one of the most liberating things is being able to paint pictures with my words. But with that comes a great responsibility. And most recently, my choice of words was not only offensive, it does not reflect my true heart. And for this, I apologize. To every woman that has felt the sting of abuse, I apologize. I recognize that as an artist I have a voice and with that, the power of influence. To the young men who listen to my music, please know that using a substance to rob a woman of her right to make a choice is not only a crime, it’s wrong and I do not encourage it. To my fans, I also apologize if I have disappointed you. I can only hope that this sparks a healthy dialogue and that I can contribute to it.

Let’s take a step back for a minute. A celebrity made grossly insensitive and problematic comments about rape. People didn’t tolerate it; they fought back through consumer and social advocacy. That advocacy opened the door for important conversations with people watching the situation unfold. Corporations responded to the efforts by making the responsible and right decision in refusing to reward the behavior. In the end, the celebrity in question issued a heartfelt apology, and called for further discourse on the matter.

THAT’S A WIN, and it should serve as inspiration to keep fighting the good fight.

It’s not just Reebok and Rick Ross here; we’re actually starting to see traction from these efforts on a broader level. As the New York Times pointed out:

That an advertiser would cut ties with a spokesman after a scandal is not a new phenomenon. Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Chris Brown and Rhianna have all recently lost endorsement deals.

But the speed with which brands have been forced to react has increased significantly with the prevalence of social media. More recently the Ford Motor Company apologized for an online advertisement that it ran in India that featured three bound and gagged women in the rear of a vehicle driven by Silvio Berlusconi. The apology came after women’s groups and others complained on its advertising agency’s Facebook page.

When people wonder what the point of engaging in digital conversation is, this is it. It matters. It has an impact. Social media, and the internet in general, provide an invaluable communicative tool if you are willing to put in the work and use it for good.

Is everyone going to agree with your advocacy? No. Are you going to convince everyone you engage with of your perspective? No. But the impact of your words is still incalculable. You will never know how many people viewed the conversation, and did change their perspective. If you’re lucky, you might get a few hints of it now and then, but most of the time you won’t. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of encouraging others to keep the faith, too. If you’re willing to stand up, maybe they should, too. Either way, adding your voice to the chorus calling for change is a good thing.

There are still a lot of battles ahead, and a lot of good left undone. Sometimes the scope of those battles can be enough to make you want to throw in the towel. Don’t. Your voice matters, and we need it.

Stand upright, speak thy thoughts, declare The truth thou hast, that all may share; Be bold, proclaim it everywhere: They only live who dare.
– Voltaire