On Saturday night I visited Paris in Second Life, joining the impromptu gathering of people from all over the world.
Avatars wore pins and held candles or signs showing their support for the people of Paris. Many dressed in blue, white, and red. There was also one avatar in a party hat, bathing suit, and rubber ducky float… but it is Second Life, after all. I stayed for a while until someone tried to pick me up. (I know it’s hard to open conversations — I stink at it, which is why I wandered the grid alone after this though I would have liked some company — but ffs, it was completely inappropriate to pull out cheesy opening lines in virtual Paris the night after the attacks.)
When news about the attacks broke on Friday, my husband and I were finishing dinner. I glanced at my phone before we went up to our home office for an evening of listening to music together and playing separate games. I flipped by a headline about attacks in Paris in feedly; we live in a world of unrest, and I thought nothing more than, “I’ll read that later.” Just after that, my husband got a text from his mom asking if he was watching the news about Paris. I tried to load CNN.com on my computer and got an error. Fine. Tried BBC.co.uk and found a short video that we watched. Eventually I arranged three windows on my side monitor: a subreddit of Paris attack news, Twitter open to hashtag #ParisAttacks, and the live feed from France 24 in English. The Twitter feed gave me information before the anchors and the subreddit provided other sources, but the France 24 coverage was competent and non-alarmist even in the midst of tragic uncertainty.
I tried different TV news channels the next morning. BBC World News and Al Jazeera America had consistent informational coverage. CNN had a report from Christopher Dickey as I flipped by — my path crossed with his 20 years ago at a magazine site I managed and he’s still helping Americans understand Paris — so that piece was good. Then I went to Fox News. Oh holy hell. Instead of “Attacks in Paris” and “Breaking News” , which other networks had used as identifiers, Fox had a big yellow “ALERT” banner like police tape and the headline “Bloodbath in Paris”. I only watched for a few minutes as speculation and opinion were presented as news, with the ticker at the bottom of the screen pulling out the most explosive, ridiculous quotes. It was disturbing, especially since that’s the channel my husband’s mom and many other Americans watch for news.
When I was a kid, a crisis like that would have meant a breaking news alert interrupting the TV program that, most likely, my whole family would have been watching together. They probably wouldn’t have cut away completely, but offered regular updates through the Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas as the night continued. By the time the first Gulf War started, we had CNN and 24 hour coverage. Now there are more news sources accessible all the time from almost everywhere, but many have tried to be competitive with sensationalism, pandering, and divisive opinions presented as fact. It takes some savvy and self-awareness to choose a mostly neutral source or one that challenges our own view of the world.