EDITORIAL: The rise of rumor


There’s always been a part of the media that has been salacious and irresponsible. But it’s pretty clear that some media that used to consider itself “respectable” has lowered its standards. A lot.

The Internet – by its very character and by its crowded nature – has been a catalyst for this unwelcome change.

You can find plenty of examples of this downward slide on your own. A couple of examples that caught our eye recently were directly related to West Sacramento, and were found in online news stories posted by mainstream Sacramento television stations. Respectable stations.

Both relied heavily on anonymous sources to flesh out their stories.

The first concerned the closure of a West Sacramento charter school. The TV station report relied heavily on an anonymous source, who decried the school’s management and made serious allegations repeated in the news story. The station didn’t explain why they granted the source anonymity – they just let him or her talk. It’s a great way to juice up an article, but a lousy way to be fair or get to the truth of a matter when you let somebody sling mud from behind a curtain.

An anonymous source can say anything he or she wants, without fear of retribution. And we, the readers and viewers of the story, are often given very little context – is the person a disgruntled employee? A rival of the accused? Why isn’t their name being used?

The second recent news story was another online report from a TV station – this time, concerning allegations against a local teacher and coach who had been accused of inappropriately touching a female student. The station published information from unnamed students (possibly minors) alleging other questionable behavior by the teacher. The rumors appeared to make the teacher look more guilty.

Again, it makes for fun reading, but gives the reader little chance to weigh the accuracy or bias of the charges. How old were the students reporting the rumors? Did they have first-hand knowledge of what they were talking about, or is it just idle gossip? We can’t tell.

It’s not a journalist’s job to search out and publish rumors.

Sometimes, a news agency can make a good case for using information from an anonymous source, and it should always be as a last resort. Perhaps the information is important, and there’s no other way to get it without granting anonymity.

Any respectable news organization has a policy to restrict the use of anonymous sources. And when it does publish information from a person who remains anonymous, the organization owes its readers and viewers some sort of explanation about where the information is coming from and why the source is left to remain anonymous.

It’s harder to write a juicy news article that way. But it’s easier to write a fair and responsible one.

The News-Ledger experienced something new last week:

A law firm phoned to inquire if this newspaper’s pages were recyclable. That information was needed so the lawyers could decide whether to publish a legal notice in here.

The firm, as you no doubt already knew, was from San Francisco.

(And the News-Ledger is, of course, recyclable – and we encourage our readers to recycle it when done just like we do.)

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