Trust, Betrayal and the 9/11 Jumpers

Several months after 9/11, I had dinner with friends—a couple from New York. One’s a doctor, the other runs a small business. Both are well-educated, successful people.

They told me that the press had hushed up a major disaster affecting the PATH system (stands for Port Authority Trans-Hudson Rail; they run light rail trains from New Jersey to Manhattan, including one that went to the World Trade Center).

According to them, a PATH train had been trapped by the disaster underneath the Hudson river, where victims lay, un-rescued, for a week, finally succumbing to some combination of fumes, or heat, or starvation—my friends weren’t clear on the details.

“This was such a shocking thing,” they told me, “that the federal government asked the media to keep silent about it. It would have been too horrible for the country to handle at that point. And the press agreed to it.”

“That’s completely ridiculous,” I said. “You’ve been reading too many conspiracy novels. If that had happened, the NY Times would have been all over it. They wouldn’t give in to government censorship, and they wouldn’t have self-censored it either—that would have been a huge story.”

“They do it all the time,” my friends said.

“Oh please,” I replied, "you’re contributing to an ugly urban legend."

“Oh yeah? Well, they covered up the jumpers from the World Trade Center. Didn’t talk about it, didn’t hardly write about it, didn’t publish pictures. But those pictures were all over the UK and Europe.”

I was shocked. Somehow, I had only been vaguely aware of the jumper stories. The US press in general did in fact downplay the shocking stories and pictures—in my case, very effectively. I had had the general sense that there were only a handful. (A year later, USA Today estimated that 200 people had chosen to jump.) I hadn’t at that point realized how widespread the coverage was outside the US, having not travelled in that time frame.

This didn’t alter my opinion about the PATH train story. But I realized I no longer had a basis to tell my friends they were wrong. They knew more truth than I did.

More importantly, I realized that the very source I relied on to inform me about certain events had intentionally and successfully withheld information from me about precisely those kinds of events.

Transparency plays a powerful role in trust. Powerful enough to overwhelm good motives on many occasions.

If we have good reason to believe we have the whole story, then we trust the message. If we believe we haven’t got the whole story, then we don’t trust it.

And if we thought we had the whole story—then find out we didn’t, because of the messenger of the story—trust takes a very big hit indeed.

This is partly about the psychology of the one who feels betrayed, not about the editorial policy of a messenger (the Times in this particular case). But it’s interesting to ask: other than choosing whether or not to print the pictures or write the stories, can the messenger do anything to avoid making the recipient feel betrayed?

Put this way, the answer is yes. It’s incumbent on messengers (whether public newspapers, or individuals in private conversations) to let the receiver know some sense of what the boundaries are.

There is some ambiguity required here: if the newspaper is too specific (e.g. "our policy is not to write stories about large groups of people who hurl themselves from buildings") then the list of "policies" is endless, and we are left asking every day, "did large numbers of people hurl themselves from buildings today?" This is why we give up reading the fine print on legal documents.

On the other hand, if you leave it too vague—nothing beyond "all the news that’s fit to print"—you create the demand for disclosure of more specific criteria.

We will accept being uninformed if we have a shared understanding of the general boundaries of the non-information. (Think, "too much information, please!" on a Saturday Night Live skit). Trust requires a shared understanding of context. Absent that shared understanding, we experience betrayal.