So it’s OK to publish rumors now?

By Steve Outing

On LATimes.com today, Andrew Malcolm posted this on the site’s political blog: “After Sarah Palin VP debate, Joe Biden to step aside for Hillary Clinton?.” It’s a long analysis of an Internet rumor that, near as I can tell, has no solid basis for taking seriously. (See Snopes.com‘s analysis.)

Hmmm, a mainstream media outlet has devoted 23 paragraphs to an unsubstantiated Internet rumor. The author is “a veteran foreign and national correspondent” who has served on the Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004.

Now contrast that to the Internet rumor that surfaced a few weeks ago, first on DailyKos.com, that VP candidate Sarah Palin’s new baby was not hers, but actually was her’s eldest daughter’s (ergo, cover-up). At first blush, the rumor appeared potentially credible, since the DailyKos author presented a bunch of photographic “evidence.” The rumor was eventually debunked.

What did mainstream media outlets do with that one? Mostly left it to percolate and grow in the blogosphere, keeping their hands clean because the rumor was “too sensitive” to touch. When the din got loud enough, there were a few mainstream reports about the brouhaha. No one in the mainstream press, to my knowledge, dived into this rumor with significant coverage. (We can discount the National Enquirer crowd. And there probably were some mainstream reporters digging around to confirm or refute the rumor, but since nothing was found there were not major mainstream-media stories.)

So, ummm, what’s the difference here? In both cases, the din rises online, and people start to wonder. Is Trig really Sarah’s baby? Is Biden really going to drop out? Both rumors could and should have been treated similarly. But the Palin routine was considered off-limits, while the Biden rumor was not.

I’m still annoyed by the Palin rumor and how the press handled it. Most editors and reporters felt the rumor was too politically charged to go after; they’d get accused of “left-wing media bias” for going after a story that was perceived as belonging in the gutter. Bullshit. It was blowing up and spreading widely, and mainstream reporters could have served the public by getting to the truth.

With Malcolm posting such a detailed piece on the Biden rumor, I sense some press hypocrisy. Yeah, Malcolm is one writer and does not represent the mainstream press. But the LA Times chose to publish his thoughts, which were based on an unsubstantiated rumor. One of the top mainstream news organizations just went crazy with an Internet rumor. Why didn’t it treat the Palin rumor in the same way?

To offer a more constructive thought, perhaps the press would do well to take a look at what Snopes.com does so well: confirm or deny Internet rumors. It seems to me that that’s a pretty good thing for news organizations to be doing. Ignoring some rumors — even when the conversation about them has reached fever pitch — while covering others is strange.

Finally, here’s Malcolm’s response, e-mailed to me earlier today:

“It’s a fully qualified article about rumors and how/why they stick sometimes. In this heated election climate 40 percent of the country takes turns wanting to censor articles on itself. Too bad. This is now the 72nd ranked blog in the world and second highest newspaper politics blog. Millions of people are reading our unexpected items and we’ll keep writing them.”

(Just to be clear, I’m not criticizing Malcolm’s piece; I am criticizing the press for avoiding addressing the Palin baby rumor.)

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!

One Response to "So it’s OK to publish rumors now?"

  1. Working Reporter
    Working Reporter 9 years ago .Reply

    I assume you’ll call me old-fashioned, but all rumors are not created equal.

    I hold dry rumors about a candidate’s political strategy in a fundamentally different category than I do rumors about intensely personal issues, such as whether somebody mothered the child she claims.

    The former can and should be easily reported or debated when the news merits, either because it is credible or merely because exploring the rumor says something about the political process, as in this case. The latter should be handled with enormous care and delicacy by any concerned — mainstream media, blogs, everyday folks alike.

    If investigation shows it is true and newsworthy, by all means report it. If not — caveat scriptor. There are unquestionably cases where the press has no responsibility to promulgate rumors — in fact, its responsibility may be exactly the opposite.

    Again, I know from your previous postings on this matter that you disagree, embracing the principle that all manner of muck can safely be slung around the Internet in the confidence that the wisdom of the crowds will separate truth from lie.

    I simply don’t see it that way. I believe the role of a responsible press is to use its best judgment on what is true, newsworthy, and relevant. We have plenty of other outlets for rumors and lies — as we always have, since long before the birth of the Internet. They have their role. The press — those who consider themselves responsible journalists, whatever their means of publication — has its own.

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