Robert Heinlein once said, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” I figure I can do almost half of those things. Many people can do even less. We are almost all imperfect, incomplete human beings by Heinlein’s standards. But being imperfect is no excuse for irresponsible action.
Take journalists, for example (people who write opinion pieces in college newspapers notwithstanding). Ask them why they do what they do. Many will point to a professional code of ethics. Those without a code will perhaps point to the old chestnut “The People Have A Right To Knowtm”, nod their heads sagaciously, and continue doing whatever they feel like. Perhaps what they’re doing isn’t even so bad; they find the most polite way to go about performing their duties in a way that best fits their personal morals.
But in these times, when the media as an industry has such an outsized impact on attitudes and beliefs, even the people with decent morals, honest work ethic, and no obvious bias towards the subject material can still cause harm. For instance, if someone were to say to you, “Do not worry. The reports of Cook Hall burning down over the weekend aren’t true,” what would be your first instinct? Many would be at first alarmed. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Who tried to burn down Cook Hall?” and then ask everyone in their vicinity about it. “Hey, did you hear about what happened at Cook Hall?” Before you know it, many well-meaning, sincerely caring individuals are trying to figure out what happened at Cook Hall, spreading fear, panic, and misinformation like a bad game of Telephone .
There are numerous reasons for why this happens. A lot of it has to do with the psychology of rumor-spreading . Good reporters can separate the bunk from the gold. But these are people trained for years to find out this information and strip away extraneous layers and present us with fact (whether they still do or not is a matter of much debate). However, the general public is less equipped to calmly and patiently sift through reports, details, and statements before coming to an objective, well-reasoned opinion. They take the first reports they hear, focus only on the words that have the biggest emotional impact (“Cook Hall”, “burning down”), and blast it to all their friends.
In many ways, “The People’s Right to Know” must be tempered by the good sense not to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater until you see the flames. Just smelling smoke is not enough if all it is is burnt popcorn.