We’re our own journalists now

A friend just posted this article from NPR which describes a new racial outrage where a White woman called the police on a Black man for birdwatching. There’s even a video the man shot documenting the encounter. And, the woman does, indeed, seem pretty unhinged while the man seems very cool and rational. Except, that’s not actually what happened.

Someone else posted an article from the National Review which does some deeper digging. As this second article indicates, the video only shows part of the encounter. You can actually see the original post on Facebook. The description gives a little more information on what happened before the video starts. In particular, the man asks that the woman put her dog back on its leash, and she resists several suggestions of how she could exercise her dog off-leash elsewhere. At which point, the man says (quoted from his Facebook post): “Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it.” At this point, he attempts to offer the dog a treat, the woman becomes alarmed, and the man starts filming.

Judging from this information (as reported by the man, and therefore likely to be biased somewhat in his favor), I think they both handled the situation badly. It’s understandable that the man was annoyed. The woman was clearly violating the rules for that area of the park, and it inhibited his ability to enjoy it by scaring away the birds he came to watch. It’s also understandable that the woman was alarmed. She encountered a stranger in a secluded part of the park who said he was going to do something she wouldn’t like in retaliation for her annoying him.

On the other hand… he could have just walked away. I can’t count the times I’ve been in a big city, saw someone doing something they obviously weren’t supposed to, and did exactly that. He chose to confront the woman when it wasn’t necessary. When she resisted, he upped the ante in a way which was intended to frighten the woman into compliance, and then the situation blew up. And, for her part, the woman clearly knew she was violating the rules, and could have chosen to simply appologize and clip the leash back on her dog (even if only until the stranger had moved along). Moreover, the man was still calm, and keeping his distance, and so was clearly not an imminent threat. Both of them had opportunities to de-escalate the situation, and neither of them made that choice.

Is the woman racist? Maybe, but I don’t think this one incident provides enough data to actually be sure. I expect what the man said and did would have been enough to frighten me, no matter what he looked like. If she has some subconscious association between black men and crime, then she would have been all the more frightened. However, I don’t find it unreasonable that she would have been frighted enough to call the police even without any extra factor from subconscious racism. So, I don’t think we can make any real judgement from the little data this incident provides.

This, of course, calls into question the justice of everything else the woman experienced after this incident became public. However, it’s clear that her employer didn’t want to take the risk of becoming entangled in the situation—no matter what truth was behind it—and cut their losses as soon as it became publicly embarassing. Maybe the woman actually is racist, and this was a good call. Maybe not. As I said, I, personally, don’t think this one incident is enough to go on. To my mind, that makes her company’s actions at least somewhat cowardly, if not blatently unjust.

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I view the original incident as a misunderstanding between two people who wanted to “win” the encounter. When neither was willing to back down, the whole incident blew up.

The real tragedy is what happened later, and I think it demonstrates the value of “classical” journalism as an intermediary between ourselves the messy fragments of truth actually available. However, it’s been a long while since we learned about the world only through the eyes of mature, responsible journalists who knew how to spell “objective.” They’re still out there—to be sure—but they are now largely buried by the flood of social media and clickbait stories designed to stir us up.

This means we’re largely on our own to become such journalists as we used to have as our intellectual first line of defense. We have to take responsibility for turning the messy fragments of reality which find their way onto our screens into a cohesive, objective whole before reacting. I’m certainly guilty of falling short here (all too often, I’m afraid). So, I’m personally taking this as a reminder to check whether I’m falling into the trap of provocative so-called journalism, whether I think I actually am working with all the facts before coming to a judgement of my own.

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