Monday, May 2, 2011

To hit or skip: Controlling the rumor mill

Colleen Veeley

Sometimes journalism is not about writing the lead story and getting it to the public within minutes. Sometimes, it is about choosing to pass it up when not enough facts are available or a source's information cannot be confirmed. Reporters have unfortunately had many opportunites to learn from their own mistakes and other journalists'. Brian Thevenot from the Times-Picayune of New Orleans covered the crisis of the city, especially in the Superdome, after Hurricane Katrina.
Thevenot had been informed by soliders of a "freezer containing 30 t0 40 bodies" and reported it. He took the information given to him as fact and never pushed to see the bodies for himself. Lack of fact checking is one of the biggest problems with journalism today due to society's pressure for 24/7 news coverage. Not only is there pressure to find top stories but also to get enough solid information to report it before the competition. The rush for information causes mistakes in reporting. Thevenot could not prove the statement about the freezer because, even though the rumors had spread, no source could be found with a first hand account of the freezer.

To correct mistakes, journalists must make an effort to fact check a source's information and make sure rumors are traceable. Lying is a malicious intnent to cover up the truth--far from what Thevenot did. He openly admitted his mistake and spent weeks developing a sgory about myths about the Hurricane Katrina aftermath. All humans make mistakes. A good journalist doesn't
stop until those mistakes are corrected.

Sometimes, saying no to writing a story can have more impact than writing one. The general public has
an "obsession with damsels in distress" and the entertainment world (Rieder 1). But what qualifies entertainment or missing young women as hard news? Does the Kobe Bryant trial with focus on his wife's "apology" ring qualify? What about Michael Jackson's trial
about child molestation?

It won't hurt to "Just Say No" to running a story that has been overdone. A small newspaper decided to stop running any stories about the Kobe Bryant trial until its close so people could actually learn about the news of the day. The paper took a stand, saying more about the issue than it could in 100 articles of trial coverage. If the stories are not run, seekers of entertainment news will find another source. If the story is run and is hard news, the public will read and enjoy it. Either way, make a stand on a story's level of importance and stick to the decision.

No matter how newsworthy a tragic story becomes, whether a death happens to a celebrity or someone in a small town, journalists have a responsibility to be professional and understanding to the grieving families. Those who have just suffered a loss feel disrespected with reporters just want to get the story and find the situation a mere task of the day instead of a significant impact in the life of family and friends of the victim. The family of Cheryl Nibert was swarmed with media attention after their daughter was killed in the TWA flight 800 crash in 1996. Donald Nibert and his wife had no time to be alone and remember their daughter's life do to the invasion of privacy immediately after the news of their daughter. The family lost respect for reporter's and their need of deadlines. A sensitive story involving the death of family members should be handled carefully and respectfully. A journalist needs to put himself or herself in the shoes of the grieving to better understand reactions and ease cooperation.

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