Whenever something horrific happens, the cable news networks drop whatever they’re doing and devote all their airtime to this one event. Within hours, they’re on location, interviewing authorities and people who lived through the event. They give us information in real time, adding analysis and commentary as events unfold.
This was the case last night in Oslo. The news networks were there almost before the rubble hit the ground, interviewing survivors, politicians and historians, and investigating how something like this could have happened.
We watch coverage like this feeling like we’re being informed. The journalists come with their microphones and their graphics and their live-via-satellites, and we never wonder whether we’re actually learning anything.
And over and over again, we forget that the networks don’t actually know anything more than we do. They, like us, are spectators at events that are so scattered and fragmented that it will take weeks to put them back together again.
The fundamental problem with the ‘breaking news’ model as currently practiced is that in the first hours and days after a violent event (and it’s always a violent event that gets this coverage), there’s barely any information available. In most cases the police don’t even know exactly what happened until a few days afterwards, and even then they’re basically trying to put a ship together inside a bottle.
In the case of the Oslo shootings, the confirmed information available between 5pm and midnight last night could have filled up about three paragraphs of newsprint. The shooting and the explosion were confirmed, but no one had any idea of who orchestrated them or why.
But the networks have to demonstrate not only the gravity of the event, but their own. So they speculate. They discuss unsubstantiated rumors. They interview ‘experts’ who have no more information than anyone else. Could it have been al-Qaeda? Who are the extremists in Norway? Why was the Labor Party targeted? They have a surplus of attention and a deficit of information, so they bounce maybes back and forth.
In other words, they do everything you would expect from an organization interested in keeping you watching. An organization interested in genuinely informing you, on the other hand, would accept that without good information or context, the most responsible thing is to shut the fuck up and let the professionals do their jobs.
That doesn’t just mean the cops. If all the reporters CNN sends to Oslo had the time or the inclination to do some actual reporting, they might shed some light on an aspect of this event we didn’t know before. But under the current model, they’re too busy standing in front of the rubble with a microphone to find out anything we’ll remember past the commercial break.
It takes days and weeks for reliable information to come out of a tragedy like last night’s. Until we get there, what we’re watching isn’t news, it’s entertainment.