Reach out and shake someone

Muslim Day Parade 2014, New York.By most metrics, I spend far too much time on Facebook — which of course means I think it’s just enough.

I consider my posts there “pencil shavings”: scattered puns, absurdism and issues that quickly capture whatever’s crossed my mind. Questions I ask about politics or culture often kick off lengthy debates among interesting people. They may bottom out in angry stalemates or fall victim to Godwin’s Law, but I find they help me work through what’s bugging me most about the issue.

One topic I come back to again and again is a type of content that Facebook eats up: flawed stories that gain momentum through shares and likes, usually with a strong political bias, usually repeated by like-minded sites, usually anecdotal, sometimes invented under the guise of satire but repeated as truth.

Whether they’re on Breitbart.com or Daily Kos or sites that are smaller and/or even sloppier, there’s more wrong with these stories than I can cover in one post. So I’ll concentrate on a simple journalistic skill that seems to have been forgotten in the era of reporting on others’ reporting: picking up the telephone and calling primary sources.

Make no mistake — I’ve been aggregating and curating content (with links back to the source) ever since the Web let us reach beyond our own writing to call out interesting stuff for readers to follow. I’ve got no beef with citing stories people will find compelling; it’s one of the most powerful things about the Web. But somewhere along the way, a lot of Web publishers seem to have lost the knowledge that you can actually go to sources for answers.

I’m staggered by how many stories pop up on multiple sites and provoke outrage without anyone asking a few questions that might provide context. The people answering the questions certainly have their own agendas, but gathering the information and figuring out what’s plausible should be S.O.P.

Here’s one recent example: A multitude of sites fearful of Islamic fundamentalism picked up variations of this story about New York’s Muslim Day parade. All of them ran the same photos of women in a cage, a man riding a golden chariot and a female mannequin hanged in effigy. All of them repeated the same assumptions that these displays represented Islamic wishes for oppression in the United States.

I don’t know Arabic, and my understanding of the factions within Middle Eastern politics is as limited as most Americans’. And I’ll agree with friends that a lynched figure doesn’t ever play well on the streets of New York — I won’t let the demonstrators off the hook for creating a display that was confusing and threatening to bystanders unfamiliar with the context or the language.

Nevertheless, I’m still struck that not a single site I encountered that picked up the original photo gallery took the trouble to ask participants in the parade what was going on — except for this story from France24.

Its account of the demonstration casts it in a very different light — far from a wish for violence and subjugation, this narrative contends, it was a protest against repression by the current Egyptian government. The man in the chariot parodies Egyptian President President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, the captive women represent political prisoners in Egypt, and the hanged figure is draped in an Egyptian flag to portray the sacrifice of democracy in that country.

Is that the definitive answer to the significance of the march? Likely not; it’s entirely possible that the single Pakistani-American parade organizer interpreting the meaning for France24 had his own agenda. (Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is among the opponents of al-Sissi, and France24 did point out that some marchers carried symbols of that highly controversial organization.)

Even more reason for people telling the story to ask questions of multiple observers. By all reasonable standards of journalism, France24’s reliance on the account of a single person who helped organize parade is an awfully weak job of sourcing. A really solid story would have looked for someone conversant in Egyptian culture and opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood to verify or challenge the first source’s assertion that the group wasn’t affiliated. (And I would also tackle the issue of why the demonstrators would find a hanging female figure acceptable.)

Sadly, though, France24’s single source is the only sourcing I can find by any of the myriad sites running with the photos.

My point, then, isn’t to weigh in on the actual story behind this specific story. It’s to point out that shocking accounts always raise questions; answers are available to anyone who can use Google and a phone. Appalled by a story of an abusive restaurant owner? Call the restaurant and the alleged victim and ask for their stories. Convinced a member of Congress hasn’t answered the tough questions? Call his press office and ask to speak to the politician yourself.

Maybe you’ll be given the runaround. If so, that’s a worthy story, too.

And remember: Citizen journalists can’t use their outsider status as an excuse. They have the same access to a search engine and a phone as any media professional. Technology has been a great leveler, as many unemployed reporters know all too well. The people picking up the slack have a moral responsibility to their readers to exercise the power they’ve inherited and ask real questions about the events they choose to broadcast to their audiences.

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