Rumors: media’s trendiest poison

Rumors: media’s trendiest poison

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Rumors are killing the credibility of the news media and I am calling on you, dear reader, to stop being an accomplice to it.

There, I said it. Even as a writer, I confessed to you that our profession is killing itself out of its desire for immediacy, and if together, we are to ensure both parties (readers and writers) are to be best served, journalism needs your help to save it from itself.

What once started as the occasional journalist publishing what they’d been told secretly has evolved rapidly into mainstream journalists just reporting what they think they might have heard at a bar.

It’s a trend that seems to be as addictive as alcohol within the modern news media, but it has a plague potential of the Black Death. CNN, for instance, talks as much about “what we think we know” as what they actually have verifiable facts to support. The recent search for the missing airliner in the sea near Australia is an obvious example, but is in no way a unique one. Comedian Steven Colbert even referenced the issue of rumors within media while responding last week to the Twitter controversy that recently hit his show.

“CNN even took a break from their Malaysian airliner coverage to spot what they thought was the wreckage of my show off the coast of Australia,” Colbert said.

In the last week, Facebook users may have noticed a story about bison in Yellowstone National Park fleeing the area, along with other wildlife, in the “trending” column on their newsfeed. Media has speculated this could be due to some pending eruption of a volcano in the park which scientists, according to at least one National Geographic article, believe could be capable of mass destruction throughout at least the central part of the U.S.

Spoiler alert: As you read the August 2009 article “When Yellowstone Explodes” by Joel Achenbach, the conclusion is ultimately that nobody knows if this volcano will erupt in our lifetime or 1,000 years from now. Meanwhile, one research assistant who worked at Yellowstone told the USA Today it was no big deal. In other words, the writer of the National Geographic article was writing about the possibility of something happening. He, though writing factually and informatively about the subject matter while using expert testimony, was still presenting what amounts to be nothing more than a rumor.

News media, regardless of the genre, have been doing this very thing lately. It’s now to the point where even I as a journalist don’t have the patience for it. When I turn on CNN, I see “experts” providing options and theories which are then quoted as “facts” by news media and taken out into the world, dispersed on the web like dandelion seeds blown by a child into the wind.

Where do you, dear reader, turn to when all you see as you look to major news networks is people arguing about their opinions?

The answer is unclear, even to me – a student of the very intellectual nourishment sought when turning on the news in the first place. The places you can look to find straight information being presented in a relatively unbiased way seem to be disappearing like the Great Plains have in the last 100 years.

But, like these few remaining protected plains, I fear for the future of such places.

So what’s to be done to stop this? The answer, very simply, is for you to stop allowing it.

When you turn to the sports media, and they’re talking about how the color of one team’s jersey might affect the outcome of the game (like ESPN recently did before the Super Bowl), or you turn on the national news like Fox or CNN and they are calling something “breaking news” that was reported last week or the week before in nearly every minor detail, turn it off.

The only way news outlets get feedback from their readership is by watching how many people are watching them. To stop the flow of rumors, the strongest signal you can send is to turn it off until you can hear some truth.