Why the Stories We Initially Tell Are Never Accurate

So Osama bin Laden is dead, killed with a shot to the head by U.S. Navy Seals. As should be expected with any big story, in the days since his death announcement the details have changed. Initially the government said bin Laden resisted the Seals and was killed. Then came reports that bin Laden died firing a weapon, and that he'd used his wife as a human shield.

Except those last reports are not true. While it still appears he resisted or made threatening moves, he held no weapon. And his wife, instead of being a human shield, evidently ran at the Navy Seals, who shot her in the leg. And that is merely the current story. I fully expect the story to keep adapting as new and more accurate details are released.

However, some people are angry that the details of bin Laden's killing have changed. Glenn Greenwald is outraged that the original narrative of bin Laden's killing – which framed him as "cowardly" and "violent-to-the-end" – will be the narrative people remember, even if it's not true. He compares this to previous stories which were later proven wrong, such as "Jessica Lynch's heroic firefight against Iraqi captors to Pat Tillman's death at the hands of Evil Al Qaeda fighters" and blames this on the media simply accepting "false Government claims." The argument Greenwald makes is seductive; even Andrew Sullivan asks "Why Exaggerate?" in response to Greenwald's post.

However, instead of assuming nefarious motives at work I wish Greenwald and others would simply apply occam's razor and try to see that, when dealing with the release of information around a big story, almost all initial reports are inaccurate. While this can at times result from outright lies and distortion, in most cases the root cause is the imprecise nature of human communications.

Two factors are at work here. First, humans must communicate a vast amount of words in order for specific information to reach another person (for the specifics on this, read the great book The Information by James Gleick). In addition, it doesn't matter if you want to tell someone a basic fact such as "The sky is blue" – the simple truth is those four words are not all you are communicating. Instead, you are also communicating your tone, your inflection, your body language, your power or lack thereof, and many other variables. Secondarily, the person receiving your words doesn't only have to comprehend all of this but also must process the overall message through their own personal filter of how they see the world, which includes everything from their own biases, beliefs, attitudes, and social standing to their relationship and trust with the speaker.

Considering all that, it's a wonder people can communicate with each other at all. This is also one reason why people immediately remember only half of what they are told. It's not that people are pigheaded about actually listening to others – although that can also happen. Instead, it's because people are trying to comprehend much more than simply a few basic words.

This lack of precision then slams against the human need to share stories. Whether you call it gossip or chitchat or conversation, humans have a primal need to continually share information about all aspects of our lives. And when something big and out of the ordinary happens, it's all we can do not to run screaming to the next person we see and tell everything we know.

This primal need to share stories also applies to people in group settings, such as the government. Once bin Laden was killed and the people who knew what happened were cleared to speak, they opened a logorrheic floodgate. Nevermind that many of the details they passed on were wrong – the people passing this information throught what they had to share was correct. At times like this group communications behave like a vast game of telephone, where whispers are passed from person to person until the meaning of the words change beyond all comprehension. Unfortunately, this is often how official information on big stories spreads into our society. There is not one major news event from the last century –  be it Kennedy's assassination, the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and so on – where the initial information released by U.S. government officials was totally accurate.

This doesn't mean these officials were neccesarily lying. Could they have biases in promoting certain information? Certainly. Could they have been eager to release certain information because it confirmed their worldview? That's true of all humans. But the simple truth is initial communications around earth-shaking events are almost always not the final story.

What's funny is that the people who are uncomfortable with the changing storyline around bin Laden's death are also the very people who want more openness from our government. But openness is a double-edged sword and means that when big news events occur information will often be released which is ultimately proven inaccurate. Since the alternative is to wait hours or days until all information is properly vetted and verified, I don't see this changing anytime soon.

Perhaps one day our society will develop to the point where we have accurate information at our fingertips before any of us engages in our global games of gossip and telephone. But I'm not holding my breath.