Theorizing Conspiracy Theories

Over the past few weeks, the Internet has been flooded with skeptical videos and conspiracy theories concerning the events that occurred last month at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. The allegations from skeptics include charges that the news media suppressed information about the existence of multiple shooters, that a six-year-old victim is actually still alive and that crisis actors were employed by the government to play the roles of grieving family members. Initially, I reacted to this conspirator-content in the same way I did to the actual shooting: by tuning it out and trying to focus my attention on anything else. Call me insensitive, but when it comes to the brutal deaths of children and the idea of malicious foul play on the part of our government, I prefer to keep it all out of sight and out of mind.

Instinctively, I assumed that these conspirator postings would be along the lines of those associated with such theories as 9/11 being an inside job, Paul McCartney being dead or the moon landing being staged. However, upon caving and actually watching some of the content, I found that it wasn’t all nearly as deranged as I had expected. In fact, the sources for the content of these videos and theories almost all derive from the same news footage that anyone else was able to watch during and after the shooting. So where does all the doubt come from?

Simply enough, the 24-hour news media, in all its overeager glory, was responsible not only for (eventually) getting the facts about Sandy Hook straightened out, but also for initially providing its viewers with unbelievable amounts of incorrect and misleading information. The missteps were significant: the shooter was falsely identified at first, the shooter’s mother was incorrectly reported to have had ties with the elementary school and there were several reports that claimed there were one or two other shooters involved. However, what else is to be expected when a microphone is shoved into the face of every adult and child who may or may not have witnessed something suspicious happening? It seems to be a ridiculous gamble to interview everything that has a pulse and hope that all the information being broadcasted will somehow be accurate.

There were plenty of holes in the Sandy Hook story when it was first being reported and those holes are what the “truther” movement is now exploiting to get their points across. There are even allegations of victims’ family members and survivors reading off scripts and conspiring to cover up information, all of which ultimately boils down to a large-scale mistrust of the news media. Though it’s easy to dismiss and disprove at least some of the points raised by the Sandy Hook truthers, it’s a lot more difficult to ignore the criticism of the news media that they evoke.

When something as catastrophic as the tragedy in Newtown occurs, it’s instinctual not only to want answers, but to want those answers delivered immediately, which is what the major news networks are responsible for doing. Journalism has thus evolved into a unique business.

Networks and publications are constantly fighting for speedy, accurate, quality coverage of big stories. But what is at stake? Is this competition completely turning Americans off from relying on the work of journalists? As we saw with Sandy Hook, speedy coverage does not equal accurate coverage and sacrificing one of those traits for the other is problematic to journalism as a business; slow reporting loses viewers and readers, and inaccurate reporting leads to an ill-informed, distrustful public.

The one thing common to every skeptical question and theory that I’ve seen regarding Sandy Hook is condemnation of the way in which the story was reported. For the truthers, the way in which reporters constantly updated and revised the facts of the story on the day of the shooting is a cause for suspicion. It’s easy to say that news outlets simply need to be more careful in their reporting, but what consequences do big-name networks and publications actually face for publishing erroneous details? Though the checked facts may all eventually come out when the dust settles, the Sandy Hook truthers are proof that iteratively updating and changing the details of a story is not a harmless process. We are quickly losing trust in the media.

Although it would be easy to point the finger at websites like Facebook or Twitter for perpetuating false information and increasing the demand for instant updates, I believe that social media is only part of the problem. People should be able to trust professional journalists, whose jobs are to inform the public with verified facts. There shouldn’t have to be a question of whether or not the content of a story is truthful. However, with speed becoming more and more important in the business of journalism, it looks like the struggle to reconcile fast reporting with accurate reporting will continue to lack a solution. And as long as that struggle persists, the news media will have to deal with such consequences as truthers and conspiracy theorists questioning the validity of their content. •