FOULDS: Recalling the Great Kamloops Ebola Outbreak of 2012/2013
If you decided to barricade yourself in your house just before Christmas in order to avoid the dreaded Ebola outbreak in Kamloops, you can blame me for ruining your planned last-minute Christmas-shopping plans,
Blame me — and the Internet and social media and especially the frustration known as autocorrect.
Having uploaded to Facebook a nice photo of my daughter in a bookstore, I typed in a little explanation, noting bookstores are a favourite place to visit, even in this age of electronic reading.
“We have to keep these places alive, in spite of damn ebooks and such,” is what I typed on my phone’s keypad.
Of course, autocorrect could not recognize “ebooks” and naturally replaced it with a word if could recognize, so my post became: “We have to keep these places alive, in spite of damn Ebola and such.”
This led to some hardy-har-har responses, with Black Press Victoria bureau chief Tom Fletcher assuming editorship of my Facebook page and assigning me the story: “Look, if there’s an Ebola outbreak in Kamloops, you need to forget the shopping and get a story out on that.”
And, befitting a reporter with a keen eye on the story, Thompson Rivers University journalism prof Alan Bass noted: “Remember the great panic in 2012 over Ebola in bookstores? Well, I know how it started . . .”
It’s not quite erroneous reporting, but it does illustrate how the Internet and all its creations can be used to change completely the intent of a message, something that happens with regularity.
Of course, errors in reporting have existed since the town crier stepped outside in his tricorne hat to shout out news of the day to the populace.
It’s the nature of the beast when reporters rush to document facts about a story as quickly as they can.
They attempt to do it as accurately as possible as well, though speed and pinpoint precision on facts is, at times, a marriage with as much success as Mike Tyson and Robin Givens.
In the pre-Internet era, when morning and evening newspapers constituted the record of the day, minor corrections would be noted in the following day’s edition.
Today, print editions do much the same, but the advent of online journalism — with no deadlines and featuring a beast with a limitless appetite for information — means mistakes can be corrected instantaneously, often before many readers even saw the original faux pas.
That’s the positive.
The negative means the immediacy and reach of online news give errors the remarkable ability to become “facts” that can travel around the world in minutes, spreading like a virus with every eyeball that scans the words.
Had the World Wide Web been a dominant part of life in 1948, perhaps Dewey would have still defeated Truman according to the Chicago Tribune’s print edition, but the Trib could have correctly reported online that Harry Truman had indeed bested Thomas Dewey for the presidency.
The Internet’s voracious need to be fed information, and the pitfalls associated with that need, were clearly evident during coverage of the horrific school shootings in Connecticut earlier this month.
In particular, online reporting combined with social networks created a tsunami of reports — and not all accurate.
I admit to getting caught up in the frenzy, having emailed to acquaintances and posted on my Facebook page a link to the reported shooter, Ryan Lanza, an identity given by a law-enforcement official. Of course, the shooter was Adam Lanza, brother of Ryan. That fact was corrected, but not before Ryan Lanza became the most-despised person on earth for hours that day.
There has been much media-to-media introspection about premature (and erroneous) reports posted with lightning speed to various news sites during that tragic day in New England.
Perhaps it will become the catalyst for more patience in reporting, for a collective effort to wait for official confirmation before stating as fact something that might not be.
However, with the intense competition to be “first,” with newspapers still trying to find a way to make online news work financially, with “clicks” and “page views” crucial to the bottom line, we have not seen the last of trigger-happy online journalism.
On the other hand, curing the Great Kamloops Ebola Outbreak of Christmas 2012 was as easy as disabling autocorrect on the cellphone.
Just call me the Jonas Salk of the iPhone generation.