Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

September 26, 2013

‘Who’s they?’ View rumors with skepticism before passing them on

— — I’m starting to think that rumors and viruses are the same thing. Lifestyles Editor Jamie Parsell had a story in Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph about a misunderstanding that ballooned into a threat against a local high school.

The Mercer County Sheriff’s Department and the West Virginia State Police took precautions and found there was no real danger to PikeView High School. A student’s confusion during a discussion about current events bled into social meeting and created “a panic state,” one state trooper said.

Social media can be fun and informative. It helps keep track of family and friends and distribute important messages, but it isn’t the greatest venue for real news. The Internet distributes news, but it’s also a venue for hoaxers or people presenting gossip as actual events.

Maybe the best way I can put it is this: An agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told me about all the bogus websites out there offering very bad information about homemade bombs. Much of their information was liable to get somebody killed.

“Anybody can make a website and call themselves Uncle Fester,” he said, calling to mind the dynamite-loving kook on “The Addams Family.

I don’t think Uncle Fester ever read the instructions when it came to making bombs; likewise, many folks who post “something they heard” on social meeting sites don’t worry about checking their facts. The fact they “just heard” it somewhere somehow makes it a fact in their minds; in contrast, journalists have to check the details and even the spelling of names before posting a story. Folks who use social media to spread gossip usually don’t worry about details like those. They don’t even worry if they have a person’s name spelled correctly.

Rumors often generate news stories, but only after the facts are weeded out from the fluff, exaggeration and embellishment. In other instances, the rumors generate huge headaches because there are no facts to back them up.

Probably the worst case of rumors I’ve ever experienced happened in Princeton when I was working out of the Princeton Times offices on Thorn Street. It started when I was visiting the Princeton Police Department and overheard a phone inquiry: The caller wanted to know about a woman whose throat had been cut.

Well, my ears perked up and I asked about the woman, too, but the police didn’t know anything about such a case. They called the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department and the West Virginia State Police Princeton Detachment, but nobody at either agency had a murder or assault case, either. Apparently, it was all just a rumor.

I thought nothing more about it until a couple days later when I got a call about a body being found behind the old post office on Mercer Street. Calls to all the law enforcement agencies yielded nothing. Nobody was working a murder investigation. There was no story to write.

These calls about bodies turned into a pattern. For about a week, I kept getting calls about murdered prostitutes and bodies being found in restaurant dumpsters. Other callers demanded to know why there were no stories about the murders and I had to explain there were no stories because no murders had been reported. If I’m remembering this correctly, one “murdered” prostitute was alive and well at the Southern Regional Jail.

Finally, we all learned how this string of murders that never happened got started. A local bank was having a fountain near Mercer Street sandblasted to get skateboard residue off its bricks. Some local boys told passersby the yellow “Keep Out” construction tape around the fountain was crime scene tape and that a prostitute had been murdered there; the sandblasting was being done to get the blood off. The rumor took off like a bird flu pandemic. And this rumor happened in the days before Facebook and Twitter. It would probably spread even faster now and a lot further.

I’ve learned to be suspicious about anything I’ve “just heard” or anything I’ve read on the Internet. More than once, I’ve gotten a person upset by asking, “Who’s they” when I’m being told about something he or she had heard on the street. In my business, I can’t afford the bliss of believing everything I hear; instead of accepting a story at face value, I need to check it out. It’s got to pass the fact check litmus test before I’ll believe it.

Social media is fun, but there are more than a few times when you have to view it with skepticism and a willingness to ask questions. We can’t afford to always believe a story we “just heard” on the street.

Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com.

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