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The Power of “I Don’t Know” In a Culture of Impatience

11 Jan

During the immediate aftermath of the Tucson tragedy on Saturday an interesting news phenomenon occurred. Depending on the source one used, the number of shooting victims and their condition varied significantly. More dramatically, Rep. Giffords’ very survival seemed to depend on the source consulted. The “facts” as reported were jumbled and often contradictory. (For a great overview of the coverage, complete with screen shots, I encourage you to read this great blog post.)

It makes perfect sense that solid, verified information was in short supply for a few hours following the shooting. The scene was very chaotic, people of national note were involved, and the injuries were such that complex medical care was needed before some outcomes were known. What struck me on that day, however, and has resonated even more deeply on reflection, was the urgent need to say “I have the answer!” even when the answer wasn’t available. In the rush to be the accurate source, all variety of media outlets from NPR to FoxNews pushed out misinformation. To their credit, these outlets unleashed a flurry of apologies and retractions the following day. That leaves us with a sad question: Why the urge to misreport rather wait for the answers?

We live in an age of impatience. Everybody wants a quick, definitive answer. Google and Bing will get you some kind of answer as soon as you ask. Cable news gives you a 24/7 stream of facts, figures, opinions, and hypotheses, all jumbled together in a constant flow. (And, if you don’t hear what you’re looking for, just read the chyron for another whole river of data.) As our attention spans shrink, our demand for instant knowledge grows. Sadly, most media feel that in order to compete in this environment they must rush to at least seem to have the answer.

(Side note: This makes me think of the great Nanci Griffith song “Time of Inconvenience”; I can’t find an online version, but the lyrics are available here.)

Wouldn’t it be better not to need to apologize and retract? There should be no shame in saying, “This is what we know, and this is what we don’t know yet.” That kind of honesty, resetting expectations to what is reasonable, would demonstrate journalistic integrity, courage, and leadership. In the case of the Tucson shootings, in fact, a clear message that things were so chaotic that facts were scarce would have more accurately reflected the situation. Instead, we were handed nuggets of misinformation and contradiction.

This recent example is not an isolated case. Another example was last November’s gubernatorial race in Oregon. The polls were tight, and I said for days before the election that it might be a week before we knew the results. (This was exactly what happened when Jeff Merkley narrowly defeated Gordon Smith for Oregon’s senate seat two years before). I overestimated the time it took, but it was more than a day after the polls closed before Chris Dudley conceded to John Kitzhaber. During that time, I saw many posts on blogs and newspaper comment sites wondering “why can’t we know now?” (The Roseburg Beacon was so impatient, in fact, that it did a Dewey Beats Truman.) Surely it is better to have a fully counted, honest set of election results rather than a fast, incomplete result. Somehow, though, not knowing for less than two days was seen as a crisis.

Honestly, and sadly, I get it. I’m a trained researcher; I know how much time it can take to get to a solid answer to any question. But as a librarian I’ve learned that my ability to find the most high-quality answer has to compete with my patrons’ willingness to accept “good enough” answers that they can get quickly elsewhere. So I get carried way in the rush of good-enough data too. I catch myself muttering  “Come on, come on!” to my browser if any search takes more than the customary split-second to wash me in its waves of data. That doesn’t need to be true.

I’m not a fan of New Years’ Resolutions, but I think perhaps I’ve found one now. I’m going to try to step aside from the rush to the quick answer and the instant gratification. I’m going to be more comfortable saying “I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out” when that’s the most honest answer. Whenever possible, I’ll find ways (gentle, I hope) to encourage others to do the same. Let’s look for facts and information, not just quick assurances and speedy self-confirming tidbits. Unless you’re reacting to a log truck speeding your way in the wrong lane, knowing what to do instantly isn’t really necessary. Let’s be willing to wait for – and look for – the right answers, not just the instant ones. This weekend was a good reminder that our impatience can not only fail to pay off, it can leave us simply wrong.

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