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Pouring cold water on the homeless guy story

February 10, 2015


Four days after a homeless man, or two homeless men (and one dog), were sleeping or panhandling in front of a Tim Hortons on Robson Street and had water poured on them, or under them, by an employee or “alleged employee” or the store owner, or a store manager, on orders from the owner, everyone at least agrees that it wasn’t a cool thing to do.

Surprising that it took so many days to nail down the basic details of a little event that happened in my own, more-or-less, peaceful Canadian city.

Even people in the downtown homeless “community” were sketchy about what happened.

When I brought up the subject yesterday outside a bottle depot with two other binners (one from downtown) I didn’t get farther than “man doused with water” before they both interrupted to correct me.

It had been two men outside the Tim Hortons who had been doused with water. Both binners were utterly certain on that point.

I’m inclined to blame much of the confusion on the fact that the story was driven by word-of-mouth, particularly word-of-mouth via social media, which is to journalism what quantity is to quality.

I am embarrassed to admit that I wrote and published my blog post on the incident thinking that it had happened on Sunday when in fact it happened on Friday (doofus!). The editor of the Georgia Straight pointed out the error almost immediately (where would I be without editors?).

Rumours of social media’s accuracy are greatly exaggerated

When it comes to disseminating news, social media sites, especially Facebook and Twitter, but also blogs, are in a class by themselves and by that I’m specifically referring to the kind of class I remember from my childhood where the teacher had us pass a statement from one student to another by word of mouth until the statement the last student heard was a hopelessly garbled version of the original.

That classroom, we were made to understand, represented a gossiping society in miniature.

For better or worse, mainstream media and the related practice of journalism developed largely to filter out the social noise — to separate fact from fiction — and present a generally accepted, clear version of daily events.

However, the mainstream media’s monopoly on crafting the “first draft of history”  has largely been broken.

Social media now often outpaces and leads the news. In order to keep up, traditional media outlets increasingly have to run without filters at the speed of rumour.

Physicists in the early 20th century discovered that observing particles appeared to affect what they did and determined that the more you looked at them the less certain you could be about where they where, hence: Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle .

In the new millennium, the new social media has introduced a similar kind of uncertainty principle into news coverage which says that the more an event is observed and posted and tweeted, the less certain we can ever be of what has actually happened.

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