Sunday 25 September 2022

When you don’t know the facts, say nothing

This article first appeared in Malta Today

The urge to comment on every single story which pops up on our newsfeed or a news portal can be overwhelming and irresistible for some people, who feel compelled to spout their knee-jerk reaction no matter what the subject is.  Likes and emojis are dispensed with abandon, simply because they are just so easy to do.

The opinions which appear magically within 0.05 seconds from when an article is shared always intrigue me – who knew we had so many speed readers?  

By now most of us who write an op-ed column have resigned ourselves to the fact that people often get the wrong end of the stick, simply based on the opening sentence or else, based on what in journalism we call a ‘standfirst’, that paragraph used by editors to give you a gist of what the article is about (although the paragraph highlighted may not necessarily be the main point of the article).  In the grand scheme of things, of course, failure to read an article before commenting, while annoying, is not the end of the world and certainly nothing to get all worked up about.

However, when people with itchy fingers immediately start aiming their pearls of wisdom towards a story where a tragedy has occurred, that crosses the line from annoyance to simply unacceptable and even potentially damaging to people’s lives.  

Unfortunately, this year has already been marked by a succession of terrible tragedies, culminating in this week’s double decker bus accident. At the time of writing I know about as much as the rest of you, namely that the bus crashed into a tree bough, leading to severe, neck, head and upper body injuries to the passengers on the upper deck.  Two people died on the spot, and 50 passengers had to be treated, although 43 were eventually released. There are four people still in critical condition in the ITU, including two children. The bus driver, aged 24, was treated for shock, and upon his release from the hospital, was taken for interrogation by the police.

Meanwhile court experts on Tuesday were re-creating the scene using a similar bus in order to establish exactly what occurred. 

These bare facts, however, have not stopped many members of the public from launching into the usual speculations, accusations and finger-pointing.  Is it too much of an effort to show some restraint?  Obviously, there are a million questions to be asked: the who, what, where, how and why are understandable human reactions to such events.  And there is nothing wrong in asking them in the privacy of our homes, but it cannot be stressed enough that social media is so public that you might as well be on a truck screaming your opinions through a megaphone.

Tragedies such as this not only demand a modicum of decency towards those who died or are still in critical condition but, more importantly, their families who are probably reading these comments full of conjecture and pseudo detective work.  The lives of those involved will never be the same again after this trauma – can’t we just let that reality sink in before rushing to type?  

We have seen this happen time and again in the last few months – there was the Paceville incident resulting in the death of Zack Meli where a Bulgarian teenager was (wrongly, as it turns out), ALLEGED to have caused Meli’s death.  The media is to blame here for it ran with an unverified version of events, and the word ‘alleged’ somehow never appeared. The next thing we knew the Bulgarian teenager was found “guilty” by the judge and jury on Facebook.

Then there was the fatal accident of Christa Formosa, the young woman whose car crashed into a tree in Burmarrad in the early hours of the morning.  

Another tragedy was that of Jessica Micallef, who lost her life in Mgarr after getting out of a moving car being driven by her boyfriend, and hitting her head on the ground.

The rumours, the gossip, and the acid-tongued comments swirling around these three stories were just so thoughtless and lacking in any empathy, that it takes your breath away.  I wonder if people ever stop to think what the consequences are when they so publicly try their hand at being amateur sleuths?  Does it ever occur to them what heartache (or worse) they may be causing, especially when the facts are not yet known?

I think a lot of this could be avoided if we did not have to wait so long for the facts of what actually happened to be made public. If it involves a magisterial inquiry followed by a court case because of serious injury or a fatality, the timeframe could be never-ending.

Meanwhile, the public will have forgotten all about it. 

 On the other hand, when no other vehicle is involved, would it not make sense to inform the public what the cause of the accident was?   It would hopefully curb wagging tongues and, more importantly, might even be a form of deterrent to jolt people into their senses and make them slow down and drive more carefully. 

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