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Fake News and 9-1-1: Getting Our Story Straight

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2017-08-29
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Fake news. You may have heard of it. The term currently looms large on our national scene. And what you consider to be fake helps to define what you consider to be true. My point here, however, is far from the political battlefield that spawned the term. The fake news I want to discuss happens when the media, intentionally or unintentionally, distorts or misrepresents something that we’ve done. Out of fairness, this discussion must also include information that we release which fails to pass the straight face test.

When I was a child, the television news was on for thirty minutes. Fifteen minutes were devoted to local happenings of interest, and another fifteen were dedicated to world and national events. When something really big happened like the Cuban Missile Crisis, or the Kennedy assassination, or the moon landing, regular programming was interrupted and even Cinderella radio stations that typically signed off at dusk continued broadcasting well into the night. But on your average day, most people got their information from the papers because there wasn’t much of it on T.V.

When I moved from suburban New York, where local stories rarely aired because the news was focused on the city, I was shocked to learn that in the Midwest even something as mundane as a garage fire might be featured on all three networks. This taught me that your location and population have a significant effect on what is considered newsworthy. For 9-1-1 directors, this distinction can be either good or bad. If you operate in a major market, for example, you may actually come under less scrutiny from the press because there are so many other stories to follow. Conversely, you may also have more trouble getting your message out for the exact same reason.

America’s discussion of fake news is largely based upon the presumed political leanings of the major media outlets; however, it has been my long-term observation that certain stations, periodicals, and reporters were always historically better to deal with than others. And there were some, it seemed, who never let the facts get in the way of a good story.  None of this should come as a surprise. My junior high English teacher once assigned a third of our class to watch the news on ABC, another third on CBS, and the final third on NBC. Cable and Fox weren’t around back then. Our discussion the next day was illuminating. The same story was not universally carried as the lead, and each station assigned a unique degree of importance to the lesser topics. Way back in 1964, Mr. Perrone’s students observed a subtle bias. This bias continues today. Consider that one network boasts, “we report, you decide,” when in reality they decide what to report. You’ll face this problem on your own front door.

For the most part, my experience with the local media has largely seen “fake news” manifest itself under the umbrella of unjust editing. Most of us in the Internet age are familiar with “click bait” websites that draw you in with an interesting picture or pithy quote, then keep you relentlessly tapping “next” until you get to the promised payoff. More often than not, the eagerly anticipated bounty is something less than you bargained for. Television uses a similar tactic in an effort to lure viewers by the use of “teasers” during the day and throughout the news. These soundbites can sometimes be sensational in nature, promising to reveal some incredible wrongdoing or discovery. When the story does finally air, the content can be far removed from the headline, but the damage is already done. People who tune out before the denouement maintain the opinions formed by the salacious hyperbole, and those who remain may have difficulty separating fantasy from fact.

Paul Harvey, a noted and respected journalist, was famous for his “The Rest of the Story” series where he informed listeners about little known facts associated with well-known events. Unfortunately, conscious choices can also be made to provide the audience with far less information. By only presenting one side of an issue, by using quotes out of context, or by severely editing 9-1-1 tapes, the media can greatly influence public perception. When Lincoln said “four score” he wasn’t talking about a grand slam home run, but you wouldn’t know that had you not been privy to the remainder of the quote.

Which brings us to how we shoot ourselves in the foot.  Often, in our desire to address an issue quickly and bring closure, we make a public statement or response that the light of day proves to be partially or totally incorrect. Social media has greatly increased our ability to do so, and lacking the nueralizer from Men in Black we cannot erase memories and make people forget what we said. Despite the damage caused, these incidents start out innocently enough, and if quickly corrected typically pass. Unless, of course, we feel compelled to follow up with additional inconsistencies. In that case, all bets are off.

The second, and more damning, way we contribute to fake news is through making statements that are flat out wrong. I’m not sure whether these are uttered out of ignorance or the underestimation of the intelligence of our audience, but many of them just don’t make sense. Over the past decade I’ve seen dozens of PSAPs and products hang the Next Gen hashtag on their shingle. Great. Now just exactly what part(s) of Next Gen have you been providing and for how long? Being capable isn’t the same as doing, or every golfer would hit a hole in one on every shot.  Lately, I’ve also seen an increase in responses to problems veering way off course. The fact that you don’t have a certain piece of technology is not related to why your telecommunicator completely screwed up the call.  Nice try, but, sorry. No. While protecting your personnel is noble, once such falsehoods are discovered they taint your credibility forever.

Whatever your position on the existence of fake news, it’s hard to argue with the fact that we suffer from the incomplete reporting of events as well as our own incorrect utterances. Perhaps the most important concern for administrators is how to keep from making decisions based upon what have come to be known as alternative facts. To this end we must carefully research as many credible sources as possible in order to make an informed decision.  Remember that we mentioned Abraham Lincoln earlier? Well, in addition to the Gettysburg Address, he also issued warnings not to believe everything you see on the web. And that’s a fact. Or is it?

 

With more than 45 years’ experience in public safety, including managing large consolidated dispatch centers in four states, Barry Furey now serves as a trainer and consultant for the 9-1-1 and public safety communications community.  See www.barryfurey.com

 

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