Thursday, July 21, 2016

The search for corroboration

From The Invention of News: How The World Came to Know About Itself by Andrew Pettegree.
Even as news became more plentiful in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the problem of establishing the veracity of news reports remained acute. The news market – and by the sixteenth century it was a real market – was humming with conflicting reports, some incredible, some all too plausible: lives, fortunes, even the fate of kingdoms could depend on acting on the right information. The great events of history that pepper these pages were often initially mis-reported.

In 1588 it was originally thought throughout much of continental Europe that the Spanish Armada had inflicted a crushing defeat on the English fleet; as in this case, the first definitive news was frequently outrun by rumor or wishful thinking, spreading panic or misjudged celebration. It was important to be first with the news, but only if it was true. This troubling paradox initiated a second phase in the history of news analysis: the search for corroboration. As we will see, by the sixteenth century professional news men had become quite sophisticated in their handling of sensitive information. The first intimation of tumultuous events was reported, but with the cautious reflection ‘this report is not yet confirmed’. Europe’s rulers would pay richly for the earliest report of a crucial event, but they often waited for the second or third report before acting upon it. But this was not a luxury all could afford: for the French Protestants hearing news of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in August 1572, only immediate action might save them from becoming one of the next victims. In these troubled times news could be a matter of life and death.

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