Careful readers might have noticed the Associated Press story about the Virginia Tech slayings that ran in Wednesday’s Oracle differed significantly from the version on Web sites across the world.
It’s not unusual to see discrepancies in coverage from a single wire service; news providers dissect wire copy every day due to limitations on space and time or to add independently collected information, and contractual privilege affords them the liberty.
The alteration we made to the story involved cutting the following paragraph, excerpted for sake of argument rather than factual accuracy:
“A student who attended Virginia Tech last fall provided obscenity- and violence-laced screenplays that he said Cho (Seung-Hui) wrote as part of a playwriting class they both took. One was about a fight between a stepson and his stepfather, and involved throwing of hammers and attacks with a chainsaw.”
The story in question (titled Richard McBeef) involves three characters: a son (John), his mother (Sue) and his stepfather (Richard). It plays out in one hateful, disjointed, 10-page scene and act, and ends with John choking Richard with a “half-eaten banana cereal bar.”
Darts are the only things thrown by the story’s protagonist, and they’re thrown at a dartboard featuring the stepfather’s likeness. His mother throws quite a few things at her husband – at one point she even takes off her shoe and beats him with it – but no hammers. Plates, wrenches, pipes, undisclosed “heavy objects,” but no hammers. And the part of the story mentioning a chainsaw reads:
“She grabs a chainsaw and brandishes it at Richard.”
That’s it. No further mention is made of the chainsaw, or Sue for that matter. Unless someone changed the definition of “brandish” when I wasn’t looking, I’m fairly certain it doesn’t mean “throw.”
Understand, this isn’t about semantics. It’s about veracity and integrity. It’s about trust. This isn’t a typo in a story about a cat stuck up a tree. It is – or rather, is supposed to be – details about the ghoulish machinations of a psyche gone murderous. If the plays are going to be mentioned, they’re going to be mentioned for a reason. If that reason is to give insight into the perverted thoughts of a man whose name the United States will not soon forget, clarity and accuracy are of the utmost import.
This is not the first time in recent memory such an unnerving error has made its way into the minds of millions. Remember the mining disaster that occurred in Sago, West Virginia on Jan. 2, 2006? One person survived. That didn’t stop the mass media – which was relying on the authority of wire services such as the AP and Reuters – from reporting 12 survivors. When accurate reports surfaced and it turned out the 12 reported survivors had in fact died, news providers hung their heads in shame while people vented outrage over the screw-up – and rightly so.
In tragic situations, facts give people a sort of resolution. They satisfy the anxiety that comes with ignorance. When you heard a college student had murdered his schoolmates in cold blood, there was an immediate desire to know more. Who? Where? How?
Most importantly, why?
Media detractors might claim it’s morbid curiosity, but I don’t think so. I think people ask because, as upsetting as the details may be, the chaos of not knowing would be more troubling.
We want to understand, and what good is the comfort of knowledge if it’s tinged with a lie?
Newspapers make and retract mistakes all the time; Page 2 of today’s Oracle features an unfortunate mea culpa that, while lamentable, is unequivocally necessary. Occasionally getting things wrong is, for the most part, not a sin – merely an unpleasant aspect of the trade. That said, misrepresented facts about national tragedies are easily remembered, but perhaps not so easily corrected. That’s why it’s important to get things right the first time.
It’s apparent that in the desperate rush for information, a few half-truths made their way through. But a factual error of this order so easily verifiable raises a specter of doubt I shudder to contemplate. This isn’t hindsight being 20/20. This story is still developing, and news providers aren’t going to stop relying on the AP because of the error.
It seems as though news outlets have caught on to the inaccuracy (the descriptions provided by most outlets have become more generic and tend not to mention specific weapons), but a correction has yet to be issued. This is likely due to the AP’s writing process, which involves a series of writethrus wherein information is corrected as the story unfolds. It’s a good system, but when a provider runs with information that later turns out to be untrue, there’s no easy way to rectify the problem.
In times of uncertainty, newsrooms are a lot like any other office in certain respects: People are huddled around the TV. During commercial breaks, they check the Internet. And after a while, they talk.
As a few of us stood mute watching CNN on Monday, photographer Jose Lopez broke the silence.
“Hey,” he said. “You think this is gonna be one of ‘those days?'”
What he meant was one of those days when a moment in time cements itself inexorably in your memory. One of those days when you get the bad news and forever remember where you were, who you were with, what you were doing. One of those days when scents and sounds become palpable, but life itself seems ephemeral. One of those days when the world loses a little bit more of its innocence.
Yeah, Jose. I do. And I want to trust what I’m being told.
Brad Bautista is a senior majoring in creative writing and is the editor in chief of the Oracle.