Rumors vs. RUMORS?
An interesting exchange between a "reader" and a reporter at The Herald in Rock Hill. The central question as posed by the reader: "Why it's OK to print a rumor on a blog?"
It's a question that takes on a new dimension when it's a newspaper reporter doing the blogging under the paper's standard. It's also an important one we are going to have to chew on as the old gatekeeper model tries to refashion itself to the idea of being more of a guide in a 24-hour, "live report" world. As noted in a previous post, old-line media are struggling with this thing called "blogging."
In this case, the story seemed innocent enough: The reporter caught scent that a new national chain drugstore was being built in the town of Fort Mill, where a locally owned paper is battling The Herald and The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, just over the border. It's a fast-growth area, and the papers are clawing away, trying to make sure each has a foothold among readers. Thus, there is the temptation to be first, to rush into "print."
Here's part of the entry:
The folks at Backyard Burgers told me yesterday that the construction in front of their restaurant off S.C. 160 (across from Baxter Village) is going to be a CVS Pharmacy. I have a call into CVS corporate headquarters to confirm, but haven't heard back yet. I'll let you know when I get the official word.
"Reader," as commenter, took exception to that with the rumor question.
The reporter responded, in part:
[N]o, we wouldn't print a rumor in the newspaper. A blog, however, allows for slightly different rules. ... The way we see it, there are rumors and then there are RUMORS. We would never, for example, blog that we've heard a rumor about a top elected official being arrested. If the construction isn't a CVS, we'll point that out and, in the long run, there's no harm done.
(Update: On Jan. 31, the reporter updated the entry; the developer confirms it is a CVS.)
Is "no harm done" the proper standard, no matter what the form of publishing? We need to think on this long and hard because standards are changing. The "print" world, suckled on the axiom that second place is the first loser when it comes to "scoops," now has this wonderful tool that allows it to shake the bonds of paper and ink. After some initial industry hesitation, it is embracing the rush to the blog. In the process, newspapering is starting to take on some of the attributes of broadcasters, for whom the operational dictum is: If we don't get it right, people will forget soon enough and, besides, there's another newscast coming up. (Remember, I speak from experience. I spent a dozen years in that end of the business.) It was put so eloquently and chillingly by CNN's president after the Sago mine disaster:
Our coverage was outstanding on every level," said Jonathan Klein, the network's president.
"Unlike print, which has to live with its mistakes etched in stone, TV is able to correct itself immediately," he said. "I think the audience accepts that."
That is the essence of the "no harm, no foul" rule espoused by the reporter above, except that what is posted on the Internet has a habit of living on. And should that be the rule for a news organization? Should there be a rumor double standard (somehow real RUMORS vs. the piddly ones)?
I think the answer has to be no on both counts.
It has to be no, because we never fully know the consequences of our work; no rumor is fully harmless.
Yes, blogging does have some different rules. But too many people become confused and think that flows from the system (blogging), when it actually comes from the motives and nature of the entity doing the blogging. For the modern-day pamphleteer, the standard may legitimately be "do harm." That is what the person has set out to do -- to agitate and foment.
(I chuckle at conferences and projects that propose that there might be constructed a framework of "blogging ethics." There are no ethics inherent to blogging; the intent of the blogger is critical. To say otherwise would be to say that anyone who publishes anything at all on newsprint is a newspaper and must adhere to the standards of the "typical" newspapers. Heck, even among newspapers, from community to metro, general interest to ethnic-specific, there are varying standards.)
But when those who hold themselves out as journalists set out to blog, the standard should not be "no harm done" but "do no harm." And we do that not by floating trial balloons, as too many politcians do -- and we privately lament it, even as we lap up the "scoops" -- but by being as sure as we can that there is substance before we publish. (One of the "substantial" questions still to be answered: How does the Backyard Burgers crew know it's a CVS? Have those folks just heard rumors, too, or do they have direct knowledge in some way?)
As of this writing, on a Sunday evening, the original Herald post, which has been out there since 2:22 p.m. Friday, has not been updated. So we can assume CVS has not yet called back? At what point, if that is the case, do we pull back a story like this and sheepishly mutter, in our best Emily Litella voice, "Never mind"?
We'll let "reader" have the last, well-chosen words:
Discussing the process is a legitimate venue not just for the blog but also for the print edition. But this rumor isn't a discussion of the process. If you said you were chasing down some store going into a developing site, that's one thing. If you said you got your tip from the boys at the burger place, that's a valid part of the discussion of the process, showing how a story might get in the paper.
But you named the business before you confirmed it. This entry isn't about the process. It's about throwing a name out and hoping it sticks, so that if it sticks, you can claim to have gotten it first. ...
Journalism trades on its credibility, and when you publish something that is unconfirmed, you are playing with that credibility. No matter what the medium, you are a newspaper reporter, and the readers in the paper and the readers of this blog will view you as such, first, foremost, and rarely as anything else. ...
Newspapers are too important to let anyone get away with lowering the standards that protect its utility.