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IDEAS

I read more news than anyone. Trust me, people are better than we’re led to think.

Some of the most pernicious misinformation preys on the human tendency to imagine that other people are monsters.

Austin Street in Queens, New York, site of the infamous rape and murder of Kitty Genovese in March 1964. Myths about the case lingered for decades, largely because of a common tendency to assume the worst about other people.
Austin Street in Queens, New York, site of the infamous rape and murder of Kitty Genovese in March 1964. Myths about the case lingered for decades, largely because of a common tendency to assume the worst about other people.NYT

“The murder of Kitty Genovese is the ultimate drama of conscience. Dozens of her neighbors were confronted with a moral choice: do I help or not? The most reputable news organizations reported that the answer was uniformly ‘no.’ As a result, Kitty’s death grabbed hold of our collective conscience and became a call to action. A half-century later, it still compels us to ask: What do we owe each other?”

That’s the director of “The Witness,” explaining why he felt compelled to make a documentary about a 1964 murder in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens, New York.

What do we owe each other? Let’s start with the truth.

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As reported in The New York Times, the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese by Winston Moseley was a story, at least in part, about the neighbors who heard her screams but did nothing to help. As Martin Gansberg wrote in the Times on March 27, 1964:

For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law‐abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.

Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, he sought her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.

That was two weeks ago today. But Assistant Chief Inspector Frederick M. Lussen, in charge of the borough’s detectives and a veteran of 25 years of homicide investigations, is still shocked.

He can give a matter‐of‐fact recitation of many murders. But the Kew Gardens slaying baffles him — not because it is a murder, but because the “good people” failed to call the police.

The collective callous indifference depicted in the story was so disturbing that it led social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley to conduct lab studies on how the presence of others affects human behavior in an emergency. The studies ultimately led to the concept of the bystander effect or, as it was called by some, Genovese syndrome.

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You may have heard of the bystander effect. Hundreds of psychology textbooks describe it, and news articles often cite it. That’s a lot of power that grew out of one newspaper story.

But here’s what really happened: Kitty Genovese’s murder was not ignored by residents in the area. She did not die alone. When police arrived on the scene and found her dying of stab wounds in a stairwell, she was being cradled in the arms of a neighbor.

It took more than 50 years for the real story to emerge. “The Witness” director James Solomon spent 11 of them following the obsessive reinvestigation of the story by Kitty Genovese’s brother Bill. A Vietnam vet who lost his legs in the war, Bill suffered (and I think suffer is the word) an indefatigable compulsion to ascertain the details of his sister’s final minutes.

Yale President Peter Salovey, a social psychologist, reflected on the story and the psychological theory that emerged from it during an address to the class of 2020. “What does it mean that social scientists have been retelling an incorrect version of this story for over 50 years as a paradigmatic example of extreme bystander indifference?” he said. “Well, among other things, it means that inadvertently we have been perpetuating what could rightly be called a false narrative — a version of events that, while partly true, had been shaped, in this case by a newspaper report, to elicit strong negative emotions like anger, fear, or disgust.”

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Anger, fear, and disgust. The Holy Trinity of modern American political emotions.

In 2016, after Winston Moseley died in prison, the Times wrote a different article with a correction of sorts: “While there was no question that the attack occurred, and that some neighbors ignored cries for help, the portrayal of 38 witnesses as fully aware and unresponsive was erroneous. The article grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived. None saw the attack in its entirety. Only a few had glimpsed parts of it, or recognized the cries for help. Many thought they had heard lovers or drunks quarreling.”

“The Witness” says that a WNBC reporter, Danny Meehan, once asked Martin Gansberg why he didn’t include such elements in his story.

Gansberg answered, “It would have ruined the story.”

I see something else in all of this: His readers, especially the ones who erroneously elevated its central shocking image into a dark truth of human nature, may not have wanted the story ruined either.

Hell isn’t other people

For more than a decade, I’ve been sending out a newsletter called NextDraft, in which I share summaries of the day’s most fascinating news. As part of my process, I open up 75 news tabs in my browser at a time. I’ve probably perused as many news stories as any human, and I can share this headline: People are terrible. At least that’s what it seems like if you count the majority of stories out there, especially the ones that really take off because they confirm a bias we all hold to some extent: that other people are a lot worse than we are. That’s why the original version of the Kitty Genovese story, in which many of our fellow humans were so devoid of ethics that they’d sit by as a woman was murdered, ended up going viral before we had the term for it.

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If it bleeds, it leads. It’s not surprising that news stories tend to focus more on negative events or that such a focus would affect our general view of humanity. But our bias toward believing the worst about people is an insufficiently recognized reason that you should be skeptical about what you read. Misinformation is especially effective when it casts our fellow humans in a negative light.

In a mutual aid effort that sprang up immediately after coronavirus-related shutdowns began, volunteers prepare food donations at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Brooklyn in May 2020.
In a mutual aid effort that sprang up immediately after coronavirus-related shutdowns began, volunteers prepare food donations at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Brooklyn in May 2020.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

If the Genovese case shows how hard it is to learn the truth about one poorly reported detail of a single story, imagine trying to dig up the truth beneath rubble left from a constant bombardment of intentional lies. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it. You lived it during the Trump era, when the press was tasked with covering an entire era of falsehoods, around 30,000 of which were spread by the first president who displayed total disregard for ethical norms, and when he was abetted by massive media companies, powerful talk radio hosts, and craven politicians. And you’re still living it now as adherence to the big lie about the 2020 presidential election has become the price of admission to the GOP’s tent.

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But it’s also true that both political parties see an upside in demonizing the other side. I’ve never hated anyone in real life as much as I hate the caricature of the average Trump voter. And I’m guessing I’m as wrong about them as they are about me.

When we imagine a scenario in which a group of teenaged boys are plane-wrecked on a deserted island, most of us assume a “Lord of the Flies” outcome: a devolving mix of cruel interactions that leave us mourning “the end of innocence” and lamenting “the darkness of man’s heart.” But decades after William Golding’s novel, a writer named Rutger Bregman decided to look for a real-life situation that paralleled the scenario Golding imagined. He discovered the true story of group of Tongan teenage boys who were stuck alone on an island for more than a year. It turns out they helped one another and worked together to survive and remain optimistic.

As Bregman wrote:

While the boys in “Lord of the Flies” come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year. The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen, and guard duty. Sometimes they quarreled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer. [One boy named] Kolo fashioned a makeshift guitar from a piece of driftwood, half a coconut shell and six steel wires salvaged from their wrecked boat . . . and played it to help lift their spirits.

When we were all shipwrecked by a pandemic-induced quarantine, the headlines rightly covered the craven politics, the coronavirus mismanagement, the lies, the hate, and the death and despair that marked our lost year. But there was another side to the story: big acts of heroism and small acts of kindness, from hospital employees willing to live apart from their families to neighbors sharing supplies and checking in on one another. The daily headlines reminded us of the failings of our fellow Americans. But our daily interactions revealed a bottomless supply of caring and giving.

In Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” upon realizing all the evil he has wrought, Kurtz utters a now-famous line: “The horror! The horror!” He wasn’t wrong. There is plenty of horror in the world. But I wish he hadn’t repeated the word. Yes, there’s horror, but there’s also decency. Kitty Genovese experienced both in her final moments. If you look beyond the headlines, especially the ones that confirm something you think you already know, you too will find both.

Dave Pell is the author of “Please Scream Inside Your Heart: Breaking News and Nervous Breakdowns in the Year That Wouldn’t End.”