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Sat, Dec. 07

Column | Journalism’s credibility takes yet another hit

“We don’t report rumors.”

That seemed obvious when a newsroom colleague said it to me some 20 years ago.

We had received information – which turned out to be unfounded – regarding some salacious stories about a local politician.

“Wow, it’s a good thing we don’t report rumors,” my colleague said, as we laughed off such an absurd notion.

What has changed in two decades?

We now report rumors, and innuendo, and speculation, and a lot of stuff that’s flat out made up.

When Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office has to release a statement debunking a report that the president of the United States committed a federal crime, you know things are bad.

That report came from BuzzFeed, whose top story as of this writing is “37 Confessions About Sex That Will Make You Feel Less Alone.” While you’re reading that, you might as well take the quiz to find out what pizza you are.

If BuzzFeed is a legitimate news outlet, I’m Rasputin.

The story that President Trump ordered his personal attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress was broken by a reporter who has, at least according to CNN, a checkered past that includes plagiarism. That’s like trusting a surgeon who has a history of not washing his hands.

And yet, even though no other major news outlet in the country could corroborate the BuzzFeed story, that didn’t stop them from reporting BuzzFeed’s “bombshell.”

In other news, as we say in the business, a Kentucky teenager and his high school are dealing with threats of violence following a misleading, 30-second piece of video from Washington, D.C. that went viral over the weekend.

It was widely reported that a group of teens, wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, were harassing a Native American man. The young man in the center of the video was reported to be “smirking.” Social media then did what it does, and before anyone bothered to take an extra five minutes to look a little deeper, the poor kid was worse than Hitler. Predictably, the video triggered a barrage of hateful tweets from Hollywood types, among others.

But alas, a longer version of the video, which told a different story, was subsequently released. Apparently, the Kentucky teens were pretty much minding their own business when they were verbally harangued by another group and approached by the Native American man.

The Covington Catholic High School student at the center of the controversy, Nick Sandmann, said he was “mortified” that anyone would believe he and his classmates would do such a thing.

The school was closed Tuesday due to safety concerns.

And finally, I give you breaking news from PhillyVoice.com a Philadelphia-based news site trying to compete with Philly.com.

PhillyVoice, citing “more than half dozen” anonymous sources, reported that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz is “selfish” and “egotistical” and a general cancer in the locker room.

After the story broke, several veteran players, who did go on the record, rushed to Wentz’s defense, with one player calling the report “#fakenews.”

I don’t know if there is anything to the story or not. But I do know there are 53 men on an NFL roster. If you’re going to run a story that damages a star player’s reputation and potentially hurts his marketability, you might want to have more than seven anonymous sources.

But this is journalism, circa 2019. Report first, apologize later. Rush to judgement, as long as we agree with the verdict. Truth is relative.

I take no pleasure in writing this. Journalism is my chosen profession. I teach it to college students. But it’s becoming more and more difficult to defend.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the three stories I highlight here would have never seen the light of day 30 years ago. The business was never perfect but the standards were different then, they just were, and there was no social media to throw petrol on smoldering embers.

The world has changed, and so has journalism.

Someone else reporting that something might be true seems to be enough.

I’m always reminding students that journalists have power, but with power comes responsibility. You’re reporting on real people who have lives and families. There are consequences.

My hope is that these 19 and 20-year-olds will be the ones who restore some sort of order.

Before the profession itself becomes a rumor.

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