A small medical facility for several weeks has been the topic of a rumor saying that it plans to close. Your reporter checks it out but comes up with nothing. If you were the editor, what would you do?
A number of readers responded, all with strikingly different solutions and each offering compelling arguments for their position.
I read those responses with extra attention this past week. The Daily Triplicate faced a similar dilemma: Rumors of an alleged sexual assault at Crescent Elk Middle School. Our newsroom found itself pondering the ethics of reporting this rumor.
The posed dilemma about the medical facility offered two possible solutions for readers to choose:
A) Ask that a story be written reporting it is a rumor and that no basis in fact can be found.
B) Print no story.
Here's what readers said they would do:
Al Pearson, of Crescent City, went with A: "If we had heard that a small medical practice was closing, and the reporter came back with no story on it, than I would definitely chase him or her out and (tell him or her to not) ... come back without some kind of story on it and he or she will have 24 hours to get one!
"In most cases of rumors, not all but I believe most cases, where there is smoke, there is fire if nothing more than a few flickers. I know that with some creative digging one can find the truth on just about anything; that is what a reporter does, if he is worth half his salt.
"Therefore, I would print nothing until I had something to print. It is the responsibility of a paper to print the facts, the facts that are substantiated that is, if it is to print anything at all."
Wanda Powell, of Brookings, also went with A: "Since this story concerned local health care, I believe that a story should be written, with sources quoted, that there is no basis in fact that the facility isn't planning a closure. I believe that a paper's responsibility is to inform the public about importantissues affecting the general population.A thorough story about the state of local health care could also stir renewed interest in improving the health care available, give people something to think about if they did lose one of their facilities (and) perhaps stir action to improve health care in the local area."
Heather Holt, of Crescent City, took the opposite position, opting for B: "... you should absolutely not print the story. Printing the story and stating that it is only rumor and that no basis in fact can be found would still make some of the population think that it is, indeed, fact.
"It is unfortunate, but also true that sometimes when the general public sees something in writing (especially in a newspaper) they assume it to be true. To the rest of the population, the credibility of the newspaper would decline.
"If I were the editor and felt the story was worth pursuing, I would insist that the reporter do what it is they do best and keep digging to find the truth. If the story was not worth further utilizing resources, then it should be dropped. If, at a later date, more fact and evidence came forward then the story could be re-examined."
Carol Layton, of Crescent City, also went with B: "A story would be nice, but if there is no story to write, it may be best to let the rumors wear themselves out. I am normally against letting rumors fill the places where information should be, but again, there is no information to replace the rumors. What makes this difficult is that rumors usually start somewhere, and the possibility of the facility closing after a report that it is not is all too real! Better to leave the facility holding the bag than the paper."
Susan DeGemis, of Crescent City, selected A. "I also find this to be the easiest dilemma you've had yet," she wrote.
Stick to facts
Thanks to Al, Wanda, Heather, Carol and Susan for responding. They've provided well thought-out arguments for their positions.
Their split responses mirror those of readers and editors surveyed a couple of years ago by the University of Missouri Extension and Southwest Regional News Service. When presented with this scenario, 58 percent of readers said they would report it while 54 percent of readers said they wouldn't.
So how would I respond as editor?
My inclination is not to report rumors. In doing so, we give the rumor credibility, as Heather keenly pointed out. That in turn can whittle away at our credibility.
But that's no reason for the reporter to not keep digging. Rumors usually have some basis in fact, as Al pointed out; rumors just tend to be greatly exaggerated. Perhaps the medical facility is in the preliminary stages of changing ownership and the potential new owners have a habit of closing facilities they purchase because it means more money for their competing medical clinic that's across town. That's important information for the community to know. First we need facts, though.
Of course, during the past couple of weeks The Daily Triplicate has reported a rumor, namely the alleged sexual assault at Crescent Elk. So what was the trigger that set our coverage of this rumor in motion?
It was the school district itself.
After hearing of the rumors the day after the incident, we began checking with the court system to see if any charges were filed against the teacher and students. When nothing came up, we decided to check back periodically and go with the story if a filing was made. As Heather wrote, "If, at a later date, more fact and evidence came forward then the story could be re-examined."
When it becomes public
But the district made the rumors public information when Crescent Elk Principal Bill Hartwick sent a letter to his students' parents two days later saying that the rumors were not true. At that point, the district made the rumor public by putting it in front of parents' eyes. Indeed, with the printing of the letter, public funds were expended on the rumor to disseminate it to the general population.
Parents responded to the letter with some perfectly legitimate questions: What really happened? Is my child safe at school? What steps will be taken to prevent incidents like this from occurring again?
The district answered with a public meeting to discuss the issue with parents. Our coverage centered on informing readers that a meeting was to occur and what was said at the meeting. In the process, we tried to answer the big question on every parents' mind: What really happened? After all, until that question is answered, parents really cannot determine if their child is safe and if the district's policies are working.
Unfortunately, rumors and gossip are a fact of life. I myself find the passing of them disdainful. But often a rumor's impact is multiplied when officials either in the private e or public sector opt not to tell the entire story. Granted, sometimes there are legal limitations about what can be said. But all too often, those in charge won't tell the story because they fear the fallout. Repeatedly keeping the facts from the public, however, only erodes trust.
And in the long run, the fallout from lack of trust is far more damaging than in the short run failing to cover one's tail.