If, by some crazy chance, you wanted to be well-informed these past few days about the sudden death of Jeffrey Epstein, there was a way.
The minute you heard the news on Saturday morning that the financier and registered sex offender had died in his New York City prison cell, you would have turned off your digital devices.
You might have checked in briefly later, been immediately bombarded by conspiracy theories and inflammatory hashtags about body counts—including one irresponsibly retweeted by President Donald Trump—and wisely walked away again.
By Sunday night, nearly 48 hours after Epstein died, you would have been able to get a preliminary handle on what had really happened: His death was called an “apparent suicide”; no, he was not on suicide watch at the time; no, he had no cellmate, nor had guards checked on him in at least an hour before he died.
These credible facts might have made you justifiably angry for any number of reasons. But your anger would have been grounded in reality—or something approaching it.
(Even in an article that established the believable basics mentioned above, the New York Times included this disclaimer within the first few paragraphs: “Officials cautioned that their initial findings about his detention were preliminary and could change.”)
What we have here is an argument for what seems impossible in 2019: slow journalism.
That’s not a joke, or an unwitting oxymoron: It’s a real thing, modeled after the 30-year-old “slow food” movement.
“We need to decide for ourselves what so-called news is worth our while, not just allow ourselves to be subjected to an endless barrage of unfiltered media assaults,” wrote Peter Laufer, a University of Oregon professor and author of “Slow News: A Manifesto for the Critical News Consumer.”
We’re in danger, in the former NBC correspondent’s view, “of missing the story because of the noise.” (Doyle McManus sang the praises of slow journalism recently in a Los Angeles Times column unrelated to Epstein.)
Laufer’s book (published in ancient times: 2011) advises such solid ideas as: “Trust accuracy over time,” “Know your sources,” and “Don’t become a news junkie.”
The multitude of worthy news-literacy efforts that have grown in recent years are preaching the same gospel: In journalism, speed kills. Be skeptical. Don’t spread shaky information. Find reputable news sources; compare and contrast what they are reporting.
We know this. But it’s not easy advice to follow.
“Three years of education, initiatives, conferences, philanthropic support to ‘fight misinformation’ . . . and here we are,” wrote Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, as unfounded theories—Epstein body doubles, anyone?—multiplied last weekend.
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If we are to assess blame for the awful information mess in a single word, its name is Twitter, particularly the platform’s in-your-face “trending topics” listing.
It was on Twitter, of course, that Trump amplified to his tens of millions of followers the suggestion of actor and comedian Terrence Williams that Epstein’s death might be tied to former President Bill Clinton, hence the hashtag “#ClintonBodyCount.”
Williams’ claim, as a Washington Post news story put it bluntly, “is completely unsubstantiated.”
So were plenty of other claims and counter claims (“#TrumpBodyCount”).
Epstein must have been murdered was the one of the prevailing sentiments because, after all, he was on suicide watch—though he wasn’t.
Lou Dobbs, the Trump confidante and Fox Business host, showed no qualms in spreading the ugliness.
Dobbs tweeted out his Clinton conspiracy theory to his 2 million followers over a New York Post story reporting that there hadn’t been a suicide watch after all: “Epstein should at least have been on Arkanside Watch.” And he added the obligatory, pro-Trump hashtag: #MAGA
As Charlie Warzel put it in the New York Times: “Twitter’s trending algorithms hoovered up the worst of this detritus, curating, ranking and then placing it in the trending module on the right side of its website.” That can give misinformation a false sense of importance and factuality.
By Monday, actual facts were circulating more widely—though many of them were attributed to anonymous sources within the prison system or Justice Department. That sourcing, while necessary in some circumstances, often engenders mistrust because it is opaque.
None of this has ever been easy. It’s a journalistic truism that the earliest reports of a major news story, whether a mass shooting or natural disaster, are likely to contain errors, sometimes serious ones. As Rebecca Greenfield detailed in an Atlantic article, “The Media Was Always Bad at Reporting Breaking News, a Brief History, that problem goes back way before Twitter—to JFK’s assassination, to the sinking of the Titanic, and to Dewey supposedly defeating Truman.
That’s bad enough.
But when you stir in the toxins of today’s politics, the lightning speed of social media and bad-faith amplification by powerful figures, the mixture is disastrous.
Breaking-news reporters don’t have the luxury of slowing down their news gathering, but they can avoid amplifying misinformation.
News consumers, though, can take an early look at a growing information disaster and make a healthy decision. They can shut off the fire hose of malignancy—and come back later when we might actually know something.