BY MARCY SHORTUSE – So this week we had a lesson in social media. The tale of Sam Samsonov, “our Sam,” as we call him, went viral worldwide. The story of a man who collected tolls for the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority for almost 30 years was picked up and made it into the worldwide media mainstream in a matter of about four days. Some of you might ask, how did that happen?
It was actually more the position of the moon and stars then it was the content of the story, even though Sam is a worthy editorial feature. It was the simple twist of a word, dropping off a piece of information here … a piece of information there … and a few key words within the story that had people up in arms and ready to become violent.
You can read what happened in our story on the front page, there is no need to rehash it here. This isn’t about the story itself, this is about the news we are putting into our brains and calling the “truth.”
After Sam left his post on July 14, he wanted to say good-bye and get the word out why he was fired, so no one thought badly of him or that he did something wrong. His family posted on Facebook, talked to a few local television and newspaper reporters and then … bam.
By the way, this was not the family’s fault. No one could have possibly expected the media wave that Sam’s story would be riding, and this notoriety is the opposite of what Sam wants.
Here’s the thing. Television news and daily newspaper news is a competitive game, to say the least. If you’re a reporter at a relatively small news station, you have a certain amount of input you need to contribute to each day’s news. And you have to fit a story into a very small time slot, usually under two minutes. And sometimes you don’t have time to do the proper research.
But sometimes people’s lives are affected by those short little news clips, particularly when the news story makes it all around the world in a few days’ time. This was a classic case of social media demonization; and no matter what you post afterward for justification or clarification, it’s not as juicy as the scandal, and it gets swept under the rug.
So after I had conversations with Sam and GIBA representatives on Monday, I wrote the story and posted it at approximately 5:30 p.m. I wanted to see how long it would take for the new story to make it into the social media gulfstream. On Tuesday morning I had two calls (both of which I missed) from a woman at the BBC. She wanted to talk to Sam, and thought maybe I could reach him because of a story I had written “within the last few days.” She said it appeared to be more current than the rest of the stories, so kudos to her for actually noticing.
I sent the link to the television reporter who originated the story. As of the 11 p.m. news, that station was still reporting old news and talking about how many hits their website had gotten.
“There MUST be more to this story,” one of the newscasters said.
Well, yes. There is. And one of their reporters knew that hours prior to the 11 p.m. news broadcast.
Tuesday came and went. Old postings of stories were still flying around, but still nothing new.
Wednesday came and went. It appeared the scandal had quieted, with the exception of a few news organizations still flinging the old story around.
These are the news outlets we turn to every day to know what’s going on in our world. And this whole thing was a great example of how Sam’s story turned into the biggest human interest story across several continents for a few days. People have the idea that if they hear the same news with the same details regurgitated across many different news feeds, it must be true … right?
And how eager are those same news outlets to correct errors in reporting? Their track record stinks.
Maybe that’s the joy of working for a weekly newspaper. We can post breaking stories on our website, on Facebook, we can Tweet it. But it won’t be in hard copy until the following Friday.
At some point during the weekend, when the media frenzy was running hot, people started messaging the Chamber of Commerce and Beacon Facebook pages (I’m the president of the Chamber here, too, so I am an administrator for the page as well). People with nasty attitudes, for the most part, people who apparently had a personal ax to grind against GIBA, and against Boca Grande as a whole. Why? Who in the heck knows how those minds work, I don’t.
As you might recall, I had a letter to Sam in the editorial section of the paper last week. I also ran it on our website. It didn’t mention specifically what happened to Sam’s job, but it thanked him for his service and it let him know that lots of people on the island would miss him. I had two people respond by asking why this “sanitized version” of the news was reported. The Sun Herald had a story, one man said. Why didn’t we?
Well, that’s because we prefer to actually talk to all parties involved. And if one party involved tells you “no comment” over the phone, in many cases (such as this one) there’s such a thing as a public records request. Those requests aren’t usually met in one day, though, so you might have to wait a day or two to get the truth.
Could this story have kept one or two days to meet the standards of accurate journalism? Of course it could have. Did any of the other reporters do a public records request? I haven’t seen them report any of the information I got from my request, so I’m guessing they didn’t.
I waited last weekend for everyone’s head to stop spinning. When I sat down with everyone involved on the following Monday, heads were much cooler. Things had started to make sense and the emotional content of the incident had faded a bit.
There were still questions, still maybe some resentment, but a lot of the conversation that transpired during Sam’s final day was between two people who were frustrated. People who had known each other for many years, and considered each other friends.
As many people try to avoid junk food and unhealthy, processed food, so should we try to keep healthy thoughts. Why are we dwelling on news stories like this, when in that same week five Marines died in a shooting? On American soil? Define what’s important, define what is the truth as best you can.
How many businesses have gone under because of an honest mistake that was blown out of proportion? How many people have lost jobs, friends, even family members because the media ran roughshod over the truth? How many people have been incited to violence against another, simply because the news painted the wrong picture?
As of Monday afternoon, GIBA had received many, many emails and about 150 voicemails about the incident. Radio shock jocks were giving out GIBA’s number right and left. Some pretty severe threats were made by people who hid behind computer screens. The stack of emails in a folder on Kathy’s desk were darkly impressive as well. I only looked at a few, I got the gist of what they were saying.
The next time you sit down in front of your computer and feel the need to say something on an interactive social media platform, remember one rule: Would I say this to the person if I was standing right in front of them? If you’re not sure, chances are you need to think about some things.
Remember the story of the two wolves fighting inside every person? One is good and the other evil, and the one that wins is the one that you feed. Everyone who considers themselves a good person needs to spend a lot of time every day consciously feeding the good wolf. We are bombarded with negativity. It takes a conscious struggle to break free of that and rise above it. Please try.