Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University

How rumor becomes ‘news’ online

By · Saturday, February 5th, 2011

Being first and being right sure is getting a lot of chatter lately, especially as it relates to posting news and updates online. Much of the recent conversation has related to The New York Times’ reporting that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died after she was shot.

Here is another interesting example, this one right here in Syracuse, N.Y.

Someone (anonymous) posted to a blog the other day that several Syracuse University basketball players were under suspicion of point-shaving. A number of outlets picked it up, reporting on “reports.” A few hours later, the poster was back online, this time retracting his own report. He said he was just repeating what he heard. He didn’t really know anything, it turned out. Just “passing along” information (rumor, I guess). But by now “the news” was all over the place. A number of blogs and websites figured they were covered: “We’re just reporting what others are saying. We’re not saying it’s true. We don’t know.”

The rumor had a certain “credibility” to it because the SU team had lost 4 straight, after winning 18 in a row, and looked horrible doing it. Something looked wrong. Players didn’t look like they were trying. Even the coach said there was a problem with “effort,” though he stepped back from that later. So in that context, the idea of point-shaving “explained” the poor effort on the court.

Is this a legitimate way to handle this kind of “news”? Passing it on because “it’s out there and we can’t ignore it”?

No, because it is hardly news. It is rumor, if it even rises to that level of credibility.

If you want a visual take on what this kind of hysteria looks like, check out the screen grab. Pretty telling how these things take off within hours, if not minutes. Note all the sites where this quickly took hold. It is downright scary.

Taking responsibility for what you report is a personal decision. The answer here is so easy to come to — don’t report it unless you confirm yourself that it is credible. But this seems so difficult to put into practice when “it’s out there,” and the rest of the world has the story …. wrong as it is and wrong as you’ll be for jumping in with them.

I would rather be sorry I was last than sorry I was first.

Steve Davis

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