#3. Creatively Filling In Details
A lot of stories hit the press with very few details at first. Say a cop tazes a student at X University. It happened near the cafe. That's all we know. The rather irresponsible student paper publishes it immediately. Soon it's on blogs all over the country.
One group of people will imagine this poor student just having a cup of coffee at the cafe when the cop came by and tazed him because he "looked at him funny," while another group of people will imagine the student walking around stone-faced, throwing grenades left and right until the cop heroically stopped him by nonlethal means. Then they'll jump straight into arguing.
To lighten the mood, imagine him launching the grenades from this old-fashioned contraption.
"So you're saying it's OK for a cop to taze someone sitting peacefully at a cafe just because he's nearsighted?" "So YOU'RE saying the cop should have just lay down and let him grenade the whole campus, so he wouldn't hurt his feelings?" "It's an outrage this cop got off scot-free!" "Scot-free!? I'm sure he was executed."
Either of those scenarios are theoretically possible given the lack of facts, but not very likely. People can be very creative on the internet, which is sometimes a good thing and sometimes creepy. I think the imaginative details are filled in from two sources. One is fiction -- movies, books, TV, etc. People might explain how this person can't be convicted because of such-and-such law, and then if you ask them if they saw that on Law & Order they will cough a lot or whatever the Internet equivalent is.
The other source is their personal experiences. A setup for a news story might perfectly mirror some experience the reader had, like a bicyclist getting hit by a car might remind them of when they were run over by a road-raging maniac. Their first inclination isn't to ask if the bicyclist ran a red light or if the driver saw them, because their intuition will tell them this is another one of those maniacs. If it was a really personal experience, they might see any doubts about the victim as attacks on themselves.
Even if you're not that emotionally involved, there are all kinds of assumptions about people who live in certain areas or dress a certain way or own certain things that lead you to assume more facts than the story contains. "Well, this took place in a trailer park, so I really doubt he bothered to wrap up his wiring. I'm sure the fire was his fault."
#2. Knee-Jerk "We Have To Make A Law!"
When Casey Anthony was acquitted, people were hopping mad, because well, she probably did kill her daughter. The problem was that the prosecution couldn't prove it. Wait, no! The problem was that we didn't have enough laws.
In response, a shit ton of people are getting behind "Caylee's Laws" all over the country, laws that would totally have put Casey Anthony in jail, if we could go back in time and pass them before Caylee Anthony died.
Damn time cops, what we really need are time legislators.
But time travel hasn't been invented yet, so the new laws, which would charge parents with a felony if they failed to report a child's death after one hour or failed to report a missing child after 24 hours, would not be able to catch Casey Anthony (unless she was stupid enough to do the exact same thing again the exact same way) but would catch parents who first notice a crib death when checking in on the napping child 70 minutes after they died, or parents who spent the first 24 hours after their teenager was kidnapped assuming she was at the friend's house she said she was going to.
It's like after failing to see O.J. Simpson convicted of murder, we tried to make up for it by demanding a law that would have made it a felony to co-star in Naked Gun movies. Sure, we would have "got" O.J., but Leslie Nielsen didn't deserve to spend the rest of his life in jail.
We didn't sell out justice and common sense for emotion, and 12 years later O.J. robbed a hotel room and put himself in jail. And Leslie Nielsen died peacefully in his sleep, surrounded by family and friends, and not in jail.
See, this could have imprisoned Wilford Brimley.
Sometimes the answer to a perceived injustice isn't "We need a law!" but taking some time to study and figure out what's wrong with the system and where you can work to fix it. Or just praying desperately that the acquitted criminal will rob a hotel room someday.
#1. "This Just Shows You ..."
Like the "Why is this even news?" people, every story fits into a pattern for these people. Only for them it's not a pattern to be ignored, but a terribly important pattern that is key to What Is Wrong With Our Society.
A weird story about a child setting fire to his teacher? "How long are we going to let these crazy out of control kids continue to maim our nation's teachers until we finally do something?" A psychotic woman cuts off her husband's penis? "It's just shocking to me how women continue to get away with this, no man is safe anymore, and won't be until we fight back." A fruit vendor attacks a woman after she refuses to buy an avocado from him? "Women just aren't safe anymore! Don't trust anyone."
Some people manage to relate every news story, every discussion, every YouTube cat video, back to their pet cause. You probably won't have to look through too many failed skateboarding stunt videos to find comments about how the injured skater will be taking his chances under Obamacare.
They see their particular issue everywhere because to them, it is everywhere. Women conspiring to emasculate men, or men conspiring to crush women, or minorities overwhelming the white race -- to them, these are national, maybe even worldwide, problems. Sure is a lot more comforting to believe you're part of a big problem that's happening to everybody than to realize your hangups come from a couple of bad relationships you had, or bad bosses, or that you feel threatened by not being able to read all the signs in the new Mexican supermarket down the street.
"These potholders ... they're insulting me, aren't they?"
Seeing it in the news helps confirm the broadness of your issue. "See? It's even happening in Florida!" you can say, even if the story (Florida governor gives new cat Spanish name) is only tenuously related to your cause.
I know this is a lot of "don'ts" that make it seem like there's pretty much nothing you should say in response to a shocking news story. But there's plenty to say. Why not ask questions? Even better, why not go on a magical journey with Mr. Google and find some answers to those questions? See if anyone else has better answers? Maybe it's not all about winning or arguing or telling people things, maybe it can be about learning, and thinking.
Nah, I know, that's crazy. Go out there and win that next news story.
For more from Christina, check out A History of Pop Culture's Obsession with Human/Cat Hybrids and 6 Bizarre Ways Architecture Is Designed to Ward Off Ghosts.