Of heartbreak and smartphones

I stood under this quote at about 2 p.m. Monday during a visit the Newseum. The words on the wall just seemed to fit my final week as a newspaper intern, thankful to be pursuing the career I loved at age 21.

Then two bombs went off at the Boston marathon.

I got the news first on my phone as a notification from the Washington Post, and my breath caught in my throat. I immediately opened Twitter and scanned through a burst of updates, then walked out to the Newseum lobby, where a giant TV screen showed the latest from CNN. I stood in silence with the other museum visitors, thankful not to be alone.

What followed, of course, was a heavy week for the nation, and an especially difficult week for journalists. I wasn’t sure whether that H.L. Mencken quote was true any more. Journalism is good and necessary, but it isn’t always fun. Sometimes, it means chasing the currents of a nation’s grief.

Tragedy after tragedy came in quick succession until it was just too much, and we became convinced that the sadness would end when the weekend came.

Since I wasn’t covering any of the national stories, I kept track of most of them through Twitter or by watching cable news in the newsroom. It was hard to sleep some nights, like when the fertilizer plant exploded in Texas, and each new refresh of my Twitter feed brought more bad news.

Journalists like Jay Hicks in Texas and Taylor Dobbs and Wesley Lowery in Massachusetts used Twitter well for on-the-scene, no-nonsense reporting. But for every person reporting accurate facts, there were a dozen others saying and tweeting nothing but misinformation and guesswork, filling airtime (leading to some truly awful journalistic mistakes). I knew this, yet I couldn’t look away. Maybe it was an attempt to cope by distracting myself from the silence.

I think I followed the news too closely this week. Did it do us any good to catch bits of information and speculation from random people before professionals could write an article to help us to make sense of it?

I was only nine years old on September 11, 2001. I remember watching the news at school, and not much else from that day. The way we consume news (I hate that verb, but it’s necessary) has changed so much since then.

Jesse Washington wrote about this for the Associated Press:

In 2001, we could walk away from our televisions. In 2013, bad news follows us everywhere. It’s on our computers at work and home, on our phones when we call our loved ones, on social media when we talk to our friends.

We can avoid Twitter and spend time with people we love instead. But there’s this new obsession to know news first and share it, to be in tune with the world, even if the world is breaking our hearts. At least, that’s what I feel. More from the AP:

“There’s no place to run, no place to hide,” said Dr. Stuart Fischoff, a professor of media psychology at California State University in Los Angeles. “It’s like perpetual shock. There’s no off button. That’s relatively unprecedented. We’re going to have to pay the price for that.”

Farhad Manjoo also wrote about this on Friday in a piece called “Breaking News is Broken”:

When you first hear about a big story in progress, run to your television. Make sure it’s securely turned off.

Next, pull out your phone, delete your Twitter app, shut off your email, and perhaps cancel your service plan. Unplug your PC….

Get a good night’s rest. In the morning, don’t rush out of bed. Take in the birdsong. Brew a pot of coffee.

Finally, load up your favorite newspaper’s home page. Spend about 10 minutes reading a couple of in-depth news stories about the events of the day. And that’s it: You’ve now caught up with all your friends who spent the past day and a half going out of their minds following cable and Twitter.

[The whole post is worth reading.]

I read the full story of the Boston bombing suspects in the Washington Post today — the physical copy of the newspaper — sitting at my neighborhood coffee shop, taking it slow. It was so much nicer than reading Twitter.

Sometimes, I miss the old media. It seems more humane to our grief.

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One thought on “Of heartbreak and smartphones

  1. I don’t get why everyone is so focused on sites like twitter that give you instant information, but is probably incomplete at best, and wrong at worst. Having the info earlier doesn’t help you if it’s wrong.

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