It goes without saying that journalists’ primary objective should be to report on facts. But how far should they go down the rabbit hole of dispelling rumor and deliberate misinformation, which proliferate today like never before?
On Oct. 7, The Kansas City Star ran a story near the middle of Page A-4. It explained that Research Medical Center had issued a statement denying reports that a patient suffering from Ebola had been admitted to the hospital.
Rumors had been swirling after the false news had appeared on a local blog, a Wichita television website and Breitbart.com, and had then been scattered by the winds of social media.
One caller that day said she very much appreciated The Star’s story, but she thought it belonged on the front page, in place of the straight news story about the first case of the disease found outside West Africa. The local news was much more relevant, she said.
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We are living in what I contend is the golden age of false information. It can be downright dispiriting to see how much garbage flourishes online — and it only seems to be getting worse.
Our Facebook feeds are stuffed with friends sharing the “secret” and “suppressed” lowdown on a wide variety of topics. Did you know that man should subsist on only meat and vegetables, and that grains like rice will not only make you fat — but can sicken or even kill you?
That would be news to the people of Asia, where the dietary staple is rice, and where you find eight of the 10 countries with the lowest obesity rates in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook. Nutritionists — the real scientists whose life’s work is studying these things — have been warning us about all manner of fad diets for decades now. But the miracle claims continue.
That’s far from the only source of the nonsense that surrounds us. I constantly get chain email about supposed leaked documents showing President Barack Obama is planning to declare martial law, or that fluoride in drinking water has been linked to any number of ailments.
True, these topics are perennial fodder for conspiracy theorists, and there’s nothing new under the sun there. But the Internet has fundamentally changed the game. I’m not sure there’s any evidence that people have become more gullible, but it’s certainly easier than ever to publish and disseminate bad information with seeming credibility online.
The Star’s policy in its corrections is not to restate the error, except in cases where it isn’t possible to explain what’s wrong without it. I agree with that idea, because even in the context of pointing out something is incorrect, it’s inevitable that some people will read incompletely and reach the wrong conclusion.
Some journalists and ethicists think that reasoning should also apply to knocking down rumors and hoaxes. There has been research that indicates reporting on bomb threats may increase their frequency, for example. It’s not hard to imagine that may be true.
But there is also a solid case for exposing widely distributed falsehoods. I don’t think everyone would agree the Ebola rumor debunking belonged on Page A-1, but it’s a question worth careful consideration.