Let’s talk for a moment about the news that isn’t fit for print (a category that seems to be shrinking in the age of social media, where everything from what someone had for breakfast to satanic cabal conspiracies water on the electronics seems to be ecosphere).
I’ll be honest: I have my doubts that even explaining to people what journalists do when they’re already reading a news site has a salutary effect. The conversation about how the media works probably needs to be had among those who don’t trust the media, who have shut down, or who have traded the media for conspiracy.
But journalists, probably myself included, sometimes don’t always explain what we’re doing or why we’re doing it.
Take, for example, a tidbit that’s been seething on Twitter’s rumor mill. There were some public officials and campaign donations involved (I’m being intentionally vague for a number of reasons which — stay with me — hopefully will become apparent shortly.)
When the Montana media didn’t gulp down the tip, however, we were briefly swamped by some who accused us of either conspiracy or laziness.
The truth isn’t quite so sexy.
Instead, we saw the same tweets that most Twitterati had seen. But rather than knee-jerk outrage, we reached out to experts on campaign finance law, including the Office of the Commissioner of Political Practices, the chief state agency on the matter. What the tweet described didn’t break any law, and even if the information was inaccurate, it was likely a mistake by the campaign, but something seen – at most – as bureaucracy. There could be no fines and no breach of policy.
So we did what any responsible media outlet would do: we downplayed the information and found that it didn’t reach newsworthiness levels. In addition, however, we found that even reporting the details would only appear to incriminate state officials by raising suspicions of otherwise legal activity.
In other words, it would be like keeping a story or a list of people under the heading, “These people turned out not to be perverts.” Simply associating them with that headline would likely tarnish their reputation by mere association, suggesting they were under any sort of suspicion in the first place.
This recent minor incident is a great example of what we do several times a week if not daily. We hear information and rumors and we go to the source, verifying the information along the way and then reporting on it after verifying it. However, when the tidbits turn out to be unfounded or completely wrong, we often just stop. We don’t keep collections of all the things we’ve done during our day or week that turn out to be wrong, out of context, or normal.
This is nothing new, however. We’ve always treated news that way. What has changed is the fast-moving echo chamber of social media, accelerating these tidbits and rumors so that the information is already accepted as truth before it can be verified. Often our silence by not reporting becomes the basis of a conspiracy theory – again, nothing new to the news industry, but nonetheless made credible by unsubstantiated speculation on social media.
For us, it’s a classic Catch-22: if we report a rumor, we’re neglecting our professional obligation. If not, we’re part of a cover-up.
I hope people remember the nature of news and this ever evolving news business. Rest assured that even in the age of social media and instant information, if a rumor is true or has credible basis, a diligent and astute reporter will likely find time to break the story. Competition still exists in this business, if only for a little complacency.
What journalists print or broadcast is often only a fraction of what they have heard or know. But not everything is true. And even truth needs context. And once that context is fully explained, that “news” often becomes nothing more than political mirages — an appearance on the horizon of something real that doesn’t exist.
It’s a tough question from readers so used to conspiracy and outrage, so this is a big request: If you can’t seem to trust journalists in what they print, perhaps you should consider trusting what they don’t cut makes .