Media pieties debunked: Even NYT and WaPo pick up SOME rumors—and I’m glad they do

image Here’s a question that the debut of, the new hyperlocal site written up in Howard Kurtz’s media column today, makes all the more timely.

Just when should a reputable Web site—or maybe even a paper newspaper—publish rumors?

TBD’s people have expressed a strong interest in guiding readers to the truth; and the operation is not a rumor site. But with an emphasis on fast-breaking local stories, the  line between news and rumor at times may be thin, just as it is on even the best news radio stations. The answer is to be transparent and share with readers the gaps in news stories and invite corrections, exactly what TBD is doing. 

Psst! Think TBD is impure? Even the New York Times mentions rumors or speculation on occasion despite all journalistic pieties to the contrary. So does Kurtz’s employer, the Washington Post. And I’m glad that the Times and Post do, as long as they abide by certain commonsensical rules and doesn’t make rumors the main show. Among the other rules—or factors to consider:

1. Identification of rumors as rumors—rather than solid facts.

2. The source. Sony may well be about to release some new e-book readers, according to Sony Insider, and having considered the source, the CNET tech network feels comfortable in reporting the story with a question in the headline. On the other hand, I suspect that CNET would properly have ignored the report if it came from a news source unknown to it.

image3. Positives for society in general vs. the negatives for the people written about. Or maybe the opposite—the risk that the publication involved will play into the hands of hype artists like stock-market scammers and corporate fraudsters. Take the possibility of a bank failure. Does the Web site or other publication risk setting off a panic? Or, via the hype, enriching unscrupulous Wall Street speculators? Just how widely should the information, whatever its nature, be shared?

4. Whether you may hurt the subject of the rumor by not printing the truth. The supposed Al Gore sex scandal was circulating online in the wake of a National Enquirer story—and the media had to write about it. At the same time the MSM people could and did raise questions. I’m just sorry that certain publications such as the Washington Post and Politco—owned by Allbritton Communication, the people behind TBD—didn’t publish more detail in questioning the rumor.

5. The prominence of the person—how close he or she is to, say, the presidency of the United States? Leonard Downie, former executive editor of the Washington Post, revealed in a video interview with Carol Joynt that the Post has an excellent rule. Don’t run ugly exposes of the personal lives of city council candidates. People at the Gore level are a different story since they may end up with their fingers on The Button. So the threshold for reporting a rumor would be lower.

6. In a related vein, the relevance of the rumor to the person’s role in public life. In The Solomon Scandals novel, I write of a gossip columnist whose employer deliberately sets out to wreck her career with rumors about her personal life. Even if the rumors are fact—and I leave that question open—I myself would not print the information. Gotcha morality is one way crooked corporations and governments try to blackmail activists into submission. It is no coincidence that some of the most corrupt societies are also among the officially most puritanical.

7. The nature of the publication itself. An oft-updated site like TBD will probably have a lower threshold than the paper edition of the New York Times. Often the new media in effect use conversation mixed with narrative. That is why a reporter-blogger at the Rock Hill Herald went with a credible rumor about a CVS Pharmacy being built near a Burger King, with the reporter mentioning a call placed to Burger King for confirmation. In other words, the readers would more or less be learning how the facts unfolded—a form of narrative. And via comments, they could participate in a conversation.

Doug Fisher, a senior journalism instructor and online newsletter publisher at the University of South Carolina, questioned the reporter-blogger’s decision. Defenders of the reporter-blogger said no harm was done and the nature of the online medium provided for an easy correction—and yes, the reporter was right about the CVS. I think this is a pretty gray area. Like the Fisher faction, I’d love to have known more about how the Burger King people knew that a CVS was on the way. First-hand info? I will say that I would not have printed the possible news—pre-verification—in a paper newspaper.

Footnote: Just to be clear, the Kurtz column is a general discussion of TBD—including links to members of a blog network—and not a condemnation of its prowess at getting at the truth.

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David Rothman

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