We live in an incredible age, from a technology and information standpoint.
When I was a kid — heck, my older children were small kids — learning and researching often meant trips to the local library, poring through an encyclopedia, maybe taking a field trip or two to gather information. While those still are, or at least should be, things kids and adults do, the truth is the sum total of humanity’s accumulated knowledge is as close as the nearest keyboard.
News is the same way. People talk all the time about how the world is so awful these days, how crime is so widespread, how all the earthquakes and volcanoes and hurricanes happening must have a larger cosmic meaning.
That might be so, but the biggest thing it means is that the modern information delivery system is better today than it was 30 or 50 or 100 years ago. Natural disasters have been a constant around the world, but 40 years ago many folks around here might not have even heard of an earthquake when it happened in Nepal, or at best we may have seen a 45-second snippet on the evening news.
Today, with the Internet, along with a never-ending collection of television news-entertainment shows, everyone knows. The events aren’t more frequent, we just know about them. As an example, did you know, as I sit here and write this, there has been an earthquake in Nebraska, one on Oklahoma, six in California, four in Puerto Rico, and four in Alaska, all within the past 24 hours?
The U.S. Geological Survey has a website which lists all earthquakes with at least a 2.5 magnitude within the past 24 hours. If I were an alarmist, I’d be shouting that this is further proof the world is ending, or some other major event was just on the horizon. But, apparently, this is business as usual in geology. Thirty years ago we didn’t know about this, so as far as we were concerned it simply didn’t happen.
Same with crime. In the United States the past decade has seen violent crime rates lower than it has been in decades. We just have access to read over and over about every crime now, so the perception is that crime is worse today.
For a newsperson and general reading nerd, like me, I think access to the Internet and all the world’s news is absolutely wonderful. Anything I want to know, I can look it up.
At the same time, I think it’s important for us to keep things in historical context, and to use a little common sense.
We get calls occasionally here at The Mount Airy News, people wanting to know why we haven’t written about this, or given the so-called “real story” behind an event. Most of the time what the caller is asking about simply never happened, or at least not in the manner he or she believes. When we try to explain that, we’re often told we just don’t know the real story, or we’re in cohoots with the powers that be, hiding something, all because the caller read about it on Facebook, so it must be true.
I’ll give you two quick examples of ridiculous things I’ve seen on Facebook over the past week.
Most of you know know of the shark attacks at Oak Island. Two people were bitten, losing limbs, in separate shark attacks. Social media was abuzz with the story as new details trickled out immediately after the attacks.
First, reports said the swimmers were 100 yards out in the water, then others said 20 yards, and eventually the accurate account of them being in roughly waist-deep water came out. That’s chilling enough, but then I saw a posting on Facebook from a person quoting people on the scene as saying the victims were in ankle-deep water.
Then I saw folks, sharing and reposting that story, believing it.
The second example deals with an ever-popular topic, the weather. On Facebook someone here in Mount Airy was chatting with a former resident living elsewhere now, claiming the temperature in Mount Airy was 103 degrees.
The actual high temperature that day in Mount Airy was 91. In fact, the hottest temp reached this month, according to the National Weather Service, was 93 degrees. Yet some seemed to accept that 103-degree report as the absolute final, truth on the subject.
So what’s my point?
This is a great time to be alive. We truly have the ability to learn almost anything we want at our fingertips. Sometimes, though, we need to step back and think, use a bit of common sense. A lot of what seems to pass for “news” on the Internet is flat-out wrong, sometimes nonsensical, and a little bit of time reflecting on the “news,” or even better a little more research online, would expose the inaccuracies.
John Peters is editor of The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at 336-719-1931 or at [email protected]