Smithson: Do we really know what seems clear and obvious?

Boston was a live demonstration, for me, of how important the words are that we use in our work.

Last Friday, some of the most dramatic live news coverage I’ve seen since 2001 flowed out of Boston.

As the manhunt for the surviving bombing suspect unfolded, the moment-to-moment media coverage demonstrated how difficult it can be for reporters to stick to what they truly know.

This was a live demonstration, for me, of how important the words are that we use in our work.

Unfortunately for journalists, their use of words is there for all to see, and when they go overboard it’s plain to see.

In the heat of the moment in the Boston suburb of Watertown, with a multitude of police forces rushing in various directions, reporters must have felt like puppets being yanked all over the place.

In that whirlwind of action, they sought to draw conclusions for viewers from the chaos of what they were seeing and hearing.

The challenge, in that situation, is that what reporters think they are seeing, hearing and reading very well may be totally inaccurate.

And as the morning hours passed by, there were several instances in which reporters gave the strong impression to viewers that police had the suspect cornered and an apprehension was imminent.

That, as we realized, turned out to be a false alarm on each such occasion.

Three culprit words used by reporters which, in my view, contribute to confusion and misinformation are “clearly,” “obviously” and “know.”

Perhaps reporters should tattoo these words to their wrist with an “X” through them, for a quick reminder of words to avoid in a fluid news situation.

The difficulty of these words is that they not only imply, but express a state of knowledge, a state of knowing the facts, of knowing the actual reality of a situation.

Well, we know (yes, know) that on Friday morning reporters (like everyone else) had very little knowledge of what was actually occurring.

I’ve heard the human tendency to connect the dots—to fill in the necessary information in between and thus arrive at a satisfactory conclusion—called “confirmation bias.”

I gather it’s a tendency to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms a desired hypothesis, and to ignore or under-weigh evidence that could disconfirm that hypothesis.

On Friday morning and early afternoon, the desired hypothesis seemed to be that police had cornered or captured the fugitive. And, apparently, that hypothesis was given more weight than it deserved.

Former U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously said something to the effect of: “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.  There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns—there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

In a fluid situation such as Friday’s in Boston, I suggest that the “known knowns” comprised only the tiniest slice and the “known unknowns” combined with the “unknown unknowns” represented the huge majority of the situation.

Some things the reporters seemed to be relying upon, during Friday’s manhunt, included fragments of information spilling out of other media organizations, disjointed comments made by police officers and heard over police radio, and what their eyes and ears suggested was happening at any given moment.

Unfortunately, none of these things proved to be in any way reliable until the very end.

What we (the viewers) ended up with was a lot of pure speculation, based on pure speculation, but sometimes presented as fact.

It was presented as fact when words like “clearly,” “obviously” and “know” were used.

Phrases such as, “We know right now that…” and, “Obviously, this situation is heading towards…” and, “Clearly, what has happened is…” sound to me, a viewer, as if the reporter has verified what is actually going on.

In truth, that may not be the case.

Change those phrases to, “We believe right now that…,” or “Apparently, this situation is heading towards…,” and “Seemingly, what has happened is…” and you’ve produced a very different message. What you have is the truth—that the reporter doesn’t actually know what is happening —and you have a message which says to the viewer, “We don’t know precisely what is happening, but this is what we’re seeing and hearing, and you’ll have to draw your own conclusions.”

I humbly suggest, to various North American news organizations that would be a more productive, accurate and truthful way of portraying a scene.

It may not be as exciting or satisfying, but clearly, and obviously, what we know is a better version of the news than what we don’t know.