When a bomb goes off in a busy city, it is reported by eye witnesses that the immediate aftermath is followed by silence. This makes sense, because so dramatic and unexpected, so random is such an event, that all our senses must be reorientated to take account of what has happened to determine what danger we are in and what course of action is necessary.

In media terms, with 24-hour news programmes available to the public, there is no silence any more. Not only are those engaged in reporting, editing and presenting not allowed any moment for reflection, they stream unbroken incoherence to the public, depriving them the necessary time and distance as well as accurate facts to make their own sense of what has happened. This creates a new danger; a sort of information pollution that sets up and feeds particular biases.

In the immediate aftermath of last Thursday’s bombing of London, initial reports described seven blasts–six on the underground and one on the bus. There was double counting because those escaping the three underground blasts emerged from six underground stations.

This was still the case at least three hours into the story. At that point too, only two deaths had been reported, which commentators were already taking to indicate a much less serious incident than was initially feared. While the casualties went up, and the number of bombs went down, the latter information was taken to indicate a much lower level of coordination, or fewer people involved, again suggesting a much weaker organization than at first feared, or compared with the Madrid bombing.

The police, however, described the crime scene on Monday as the biggest in British history, and urged patience on the part of victims families, as their evident frustration was starting itself to be picked up by the media. How can a forensic, scientific examination match the media’s real-time response rate, and flexibility with the need for accuracy? If we don’t acknowledge the need for reflection, we won’t get it. Those with the ability or propensity to rush to judgement will get promoted. Decision making will be impoverished, and the risks will increase.

Real-time coverage leaves its mark. Few people will return to more considered writing, or pick up on the smaller, often more salient facts that emerge at a much later date.

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