July 27, 2011

Paper reports a rumor, to protect the object; social media may cause more such cases

Report a rumor? Sometimes it's called for. The Times Tribune of Corbin, Ky., made that decision this week because a rumor made viral by social media was raising the possibility of retribution and discrimination against an innocent person and his business.

Michele Baker's story began tightly: "A Corbin business has suffered a downturn due to an apparently false rumor circulated on social media outlets that the owners refused to serve uniformed soldiers." It quoted the owner, an India native who said he is a U.S. citizen, as denying the rumor and noting that his daughter is in the local high school's Reserve Officer Training Corps; and it quoted the local police chief: “We have had a dozen calls this morning and we are trying to verify the allegations. We are trying to stop the rumors.” (Baker photo: The Pak-N-Sak store)

Having established the official concern, the newspaper weighed in on its own authority, reporting, "Attempts to contact the servicemen who were allegedly refused service have been unsuccessful. Allegations of business owners refusing to serve soldiers are rampant on the Internet." And it kept the story short: 325 words. There's just as long a story in how the 6,000-circulation daily decided to report a rumor that exploded on Facebook and Topix, the website with discussion threads for seemingly every community.

Managing Editor Becky Kilian said she first heard the rumor Saturday, and by the time the office opened Monday, "It was pickling up multiple threads on Topix and was spreading to Barbourville, in the next county." She said that the police chief mentioned it to her in a conversation about another matter and "We were both concerned that if the rumor continued unchecked that it might contirbute to an inappropriate action on someone's part," beyond the ethnic slurs and gullibility displayed online.

Baker went to work on the story, and "In every aspect in Michele's reporting, it looked like a myth," Kilian said. "It might as well have been a Bigfoot sighting." When a Google search found similar cases elsewhere, involving ethnic or racial discrimination, Kilian knew the paper needed to publish an unusual story. "With the discrimination against a minority and the inflammatory langauge that was being used," she said, "it needed to be addressed."

"This is the first time I think in my career as a journalist that I've ever been involved in a story that dealt with a rumor like that," said Kilian, a Corbin native who has been a journalist for 10 years and returned to her hometown as a reporter two years ago. She became managing editor of the Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. paper last year.

"I just wish there was some way to educate people" that just because they read something on the Internet that doesn't mean it's true," Kilian said. "I wish we could teach news discernment." Situations like this call for editorial discernment, too, and the prevalence of social media mean that journalists may have to make calls like this more frequently.

"So far today's story seems to have garnered a great deal of attention," Baker said in an email to The Rural Blog. "I received a call from a man who said he was among those who helped spread the rumor and the he now regrets it." To read Baker's story, click here. To read some of the discussion on Topix, click here.

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