Approaching the Event Horizon

On July 17th, 2014, I was at work by 7AM scanning live news feeds to send to global alert lists. I had been at this job for about a year and a half, and had seen my fair share of major breaking news–from the war in Gaza to the Boston bombing manhunt. At around 9AM, I see a short 2-line feed from the Russian outlet Itar-Tass (now just Tass) that eyewitnesses saw rebels in Ukraine bring down a “military transport plane…on the outskirts of the town of Torez”.  A separatist leader would affirm this in a post on the Russian social media site VKontakte, but I did not see this (I don’t speak/read Russian for one) until larger outlets started to pick up the story.

Minutes later, AFP breaks that the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 had disappeared over the rebel-held region of Donetsk.

Warning bells. I did a quick Google Maps search and confirmed that Torez is in the same area that the flight had disappeared. It doesn’t take a huge leap in logic to realize, “Oh shit, the rebels mistook a passenger plane for a military plane and shot it down.”

It made sense. Just days before, they had shot down a Ukraine military plane. They had been purposefully targeting Ukraine military, why wouldn’t they enthusiastically proclaim another victory?

What followed was a flurry of reports, some contradicting, and many accusations from both sides. The confirmation of the deaths of hundreds on the flight was met with horror and condemnation. The rebels (and Russia) quickly turned the tables and pointed towards Ukraine. The rebels’/separatists’ Twitter and other social media accounts were quickly deleted, but a few people were able to screenshot their boasting before the true nature of the crash came to light.

Even now, nearly a year later, there are still doubts about who exactly was responsible. This is largely due to the murky nature of media in Ukraine and Russia in the midst of this civil war.

But I know what I saw, when I saw it. And what I saw was perhaps as close to the truth as possible despite being thousands of miles away from the event.

While working in news/media analysis, I have had the opportunity to examine the phenomenon of “breaking news”, as well as the issue of news narratives. In my particular position, I am continuously watching worldwide news break not just on one outlet, but on many global, regional, and local news outlets. This varied juxtaposition of media is unique in the global digital age. Not only are we given the diversity of views–a kaleidoscope of analysis and perspectives–we are fed these views almost instantaneously.

The “Event Horizon”–the moment an event occurs–has been brought closer to the (global) public. The internet has brought civil protests, bombings, and elections to our instant attention, in a live play-by-play format. We can get Google Alerts sent straight to our phones. We have our pick of outlets for breaking news: Twitter, CNN, Facebook, Xinhua, Al-Jazeera, AFP. Hell, I’m sure some of us still get info from late night cable.

The interesting part of all of this is how clearly our modern media shows how the truth of an event takes a certain shape the minutes, hours, days, weeks after it happens.

Most police, lawyers, and psychologists will tell you that witnesses are not reliable. You ask five people what happened, you get 8 different answers. It is difficult to reconstruct the narrative of an event perfectly, even with the help of visual evidence. This is why the Michael Brown murder was so telling, in all of its stages. You had people posting video and pictures moments after it happened. People hyped up on fear and adrenaline talking with reporters as soon as they could get a hold of their email or Twitter.

You have people telling stories all the way up to the witness stand, when enough time had passed that they could choose to seamlessly fit one of many conflicting narratives.

The marvel of crowdsourced news, as well as the amalgamation of official news outlets, has influenced the Truth of events. They also expose their own biases when propped against each other. Xinhua is great at reporting events almost as soon as they happen–the China-held station, however, is very reluctant to share news about the political unrest in Hong Kong like Western media. Associated Press and Agence France-Presse keep their reporting as simple and fact-based as they can, and yet AP reported a picture of a black New Orleans resident “looting” after Hurricane Katrina while AFP reported a white resident “finding” food from a grocery store.

Even today, at the Navy Yard in DC where there was a feared “active shooter”, outlets reported that there were possibly two suspects, a white male and a black male (8:26 timestamp). Later, the whole thing turned out to be a false alarm. Still, the false-positive, even to such detail, in a high-adrenaline story is unavoidable.

These sources are the witnesses; not necessarily 100% reliable, but necessary nonetheless. We need formal outlets, with trained reporters established in the region and reporting on a wide variety of interests. We also need citizen reporters to fill in the gaps, especially in areas of government-controlled or corporate-monopolized media. From the diversity of narratives and motives, we might begin to decipher the shards of that time bubble so very close to the heart of the event. By understanding the source of the news, we might also unravel the threads of conscious and unconscious narratives.

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