Sunday, January 29, 2006

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.


At 1/29/06, 10:41 PM, Anonymous Joe Zekas said...

"Newspapers are too important to let anyone get away with lowering the standards that protect its utility."

Shouldn't those standards include, and be defended with, good grammar?

How can we expect the standards you espouse to be upheld by so-called reporters who apparently don't know enough to ask the folks at Backyard Burgers how they knew what they stated they knew?

At 1/30/06, 1:21 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...


Two issues here:
-- On the grammar. Sure, but this was a "reader" according to the handle on the comments, so I'm not going to get too bent about that person's grammar. He or she is not hanging out a shingle as a journalist, nor is the person being edited. (Heck, I put a period where a question mark should have been and have since caught it, so a few mistakes always happen. That's one of the issues we're sorting out in this era of participatory journalism -- how much do you hold "them" to "your" standards?)
- On the who knew what how issue: Perhaps the burger folk did know and perhaps the reporter knows how they know? Can't tell that from what's posted, and that's the problem. It might go deeper, as you suggest, or might be a failure to simply include it in the post. So I won't prejudge, but it is a failure of transparency, which is currency in the blogging world. Again, that's something else trad media are grappling with.

At 1/30/06, 5:05 PM, Blogger Dan said...

I'm wondering what the difference is between a reporter who writes that "The folks at Backyard Burgers told me yesterday..." and the reporter who writes "A senior White House official said..." Certainly in this case, it's possible to call CVS and track down the actual facts, which should probably have been done before rushing to the keyboard, but should journalists eschew every rumor they hear? I would argue that rumors are the reason the journalism industry uses attribution in the first place, in order to shift the blame to somebody else just in case the whole thing blows up. In a more timely example, consider the Sago mine rescue. Obviously, it turned out to be a rumor, but the papers who had the foresight to include an attribution to Manchin were able to recover from the damage much more quickly.

At 1/30/06, 6:04 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...


The difference is that we presume the White House official might have some insight as to what is going on at the White House and in the administration. Had the unidentified source been a CVS official, then no problem.

Certainly, journalism should not eschew every rumor. That's how you often get the best stories. But the question is do you go to "print" on rumors? Adn the crux of what I saw here was this idea that because it is a blog there somehow is a two-tier standard. I don't believe there should be.

At 1/31/06, 1:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gotta say -- I disagree.

A blog entry isn't a newspaper article.

The primary meme of blogging is that it is a conversation.

You take something like the CVS post, put it out there and see what comes of it. Others might have more information or details to add, either confirming or denying. This is a great way to do journalism, if you believe the purpose of journalism is to get at the truth.

Also, there is a big difference between quoting the unnamed White House source and the CVS neighbors. The WH source ALWAYS has a political angle he's playing. That's something few WH reports ever think about. A WH source is ALWAYS self serving. Anonymity for WH sources is a crime against journalism. Whereas the neighbor for the CVS might have a agenda, but it's probably far more benign, if it exists and all, and he might be in a real position to know, given physical proximity to the actual event. The WH source should be presumed to be a liar until proven otherwise by fact checking his ass. (NOTE: This has nothing to do with the present occupant of the West Wing. It applies equally to all administrations, and Congress and the Pentagon, for that matter.)

But none of that last graph as anything to do with the basic of idea of using blogs to print what you know and find out more. The heart and soul of blogging.

Journalists just CANNOT apply their old print rules to blogs. When they do, those blogs are too often boring and pointless. Use the tool for the purpose it was designed to be used for.

-- howard owens

At 1/31/06, 3:29 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...


Not the old "print" rules -- the basic rules of news. (Another case of confounding medium with method.)

And that's why the conversation is important because things like blogs are changing the rules, much as broadcasting and cable did before that, and the question is how much we move the boundaries. Do we indeed have "rumors' vs. "RUMORS"? And if so, how do we distinguish? And by the Jell-o method (see what sticks), do we risk doing harm? All very good questions to keep debating.

It is possible to write a lively blog and still have some boundaries. And I agree with you -- "to print what you know and find out more" -- but the contention here is, is rumor "knowing"? And as a corollary, does this blog "freedom" lower that standard -- report what you know vs. report rumor you think you know.

The latter too often leads to "rumor" becoming "fact" simply by media retelling without anyone asking -- or telling me as the reader -- how the original source "knew" in the first place. So I don't think we actually disagree when you say the neighbor "might" be in a position to know. My response is remove the "might." Find out how that person "knows" and tell me -- but make sure it is real knowledge, not just further reflection of a rumor.

(We can debate, of course, whether "the media" has done its job in making sure those White House sources "know." But that's no excuse to compound previous and now widely reviled practices.)

When we do actually "know" something, then go ahead. Blogging allows us to build that knowledge incrementally much more easily -- and ultimately, I hope, more richly as a result.

I pointed out the instance as much to highlight that, indeed, the rules are being changed whether we like it or not and we damn well better talk about extensively. So far, our history of dealing with such things has been uniformly unsatisfying; just look at any credibility measure.


At 2/6/06, 10:10 AM, Anonymous chesire cat said...

If you take Howard at his word, here are some valid "news" blogs.

I heard the President was illegally wiretapping Americans. Anyone know if this is true?

I heard the President was really a Venusian infiltrator leading a fifth column interplanetary conquest team. Can anyone else elabotate on this?

Blogs are a fad. I think newspapers that do them in a rush to follow the fad need to make sure they don't damage their long-term cred.


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