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Mostly gone are the days of trusting a sole authoritative news source — such as The New York Times, Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite — telling us all the news fit to print, “and that’s the way it is.”
Instead of us gathering at nonpartisan founts of truth and wisdom, like that, and taking thoughtful sips of dialectical discourse, with upraised pinkies, news audiences today generally splash around under an indiscriminate and often incendiary firehose of social media.
This muddy gushing spray, with droplets generally shaped alike in disguises of uniform credibility, constantly washes over and past people, sometimes with toxic effects. As such, we tend to absorb what we like and quickly slough off the rest, through a subconscious confirmation bias, especially when faced with news that fundamentally could challenge our most closely held beliefs and assumptions.
The intellectual aftermath in our society can look like a scene from The Walking Dead, where hordes of brainless zombies shuffle around trying to devour the few remaining packs of survivors, some of whom are desperately trying to reconstitute civilization, while still others actively attempt to deliver humanity’s coup de grace.
Those seeking rightness and oneness, though, have an opportunity in this diverse mix of digital and analog news as well. By spending a bit more time and energy with the important stories, a reader carefully can piece together discrete bits of information across all available sources to form a transmedia tale of what happened in any given situation, at times creating a more coherent, rich and complete story than what’s likely available from any single source, even the best ones.
Let’s look back at the case last week of the psychopathic killer who simply walked out of the Hawaii State Hospital, for example. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the state’s largest media source, presented in print on Wednesday a striking front-page design asking in huge letters “HOW did this happen?” with a grainy and rounded security-footage image of the escapee, Randall Saito, representing both our telescopic view and our marvel at the institutional incompetence.
Left alone and unsupervised, Saito apparently left the hospital about 10 a.m., chartered a flight to Maui, then took another flight to California. He had a couple more hours to spare before the hospital even called in his disappearance, about 7:30 p.m., with another hour lag before police put out a public warning.
This is a guy, by the way, who has been classified as a necrophiliac and sexual sadist, and who is spending his life imprisoned for randomly killing a stranger at the Ala Moana mall.
The communal relief therefore was appropriately expressed in another dramatic Star-Advertiser front page headline on Thursday, blaring out: “Caught.”
For a comparison, Civil Beat headlined roughly equivalent stories as “Officials Still Silent About How Killer Escaped From Hawaii State Hospital” and “Hawaii Acknowledges Failures After Escaped Killer Is Captured.”
Those two printed front pages are reminders of just how impactful the newspaper medium still can be, because of the physical nature of the paper and its flexible design parameters.
Imagine how the newspaper hawkers of the late 19th century might have stood on street corners in downtown Honolulu and called out updates of this man hunt, among competing dailies. From that perspective, much has been gained in the industry’s broad transition into digital news, but some things have been lost as well.
From a purely rational perspective, one lone mental hospital escapee is about as dangerous to the general public right now as a hungry tiger shark a bit too close to one of our shores. But from a news perspective, this extremely unusual and sensational story raised countless compelling questions, with journalists throughout the island sent scrambling to answer them.
Among the many fascinating and horrifying revelations of the ensuing reportage:
When we pay the bills, as taxpayers, there should be no legitimate institutional “privacy” protections in terms of public stakeholders curious about protocols, procedures or public safety incidents.
When we use multiple media sources to try and understand important societal stories, we often can learn different pieces of information from different sources, presenting a more complete picture of what happened, why, and how.
Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at email@example.com.
Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.