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Playing ‘telephone’ with modern technology

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 11:28 a.m. CST

I once was asked by a group of high school journalism students to differentiate between journalists and bloggers.

At the time, it was an important discussion point, not just for the students, but for our industry as a whole. And, it’s a discussion we continue to have on a recurring basis. Are bloggers journalists? What does it mean to be a journalist in the 21st century?

To answer the question bluntly, I said: “Bloggers are not journalists, however, journalists can make great bloggers.”

I’m guessing most of you remember the old children’s game “telephone.” For those who don’t the object of the game is to send a message through a chain of friends, with the goal of getting the message right at the end.

And, almost invariably, it was never right at the end. In fact, usually, it wasn’t even close.

In many ways, that’s how the modern-day rumor mill works. Someone tells someone what they’ve heard, and the second someone tells a third, who passes the message on to a fourth, and so on. Except, at the end of this “telephone game,” someone’s life is probably getting ruined.

It’s not much of a game, if you ask me.

One of the most difficult jobs I face as a modern-day journalist is to combat the local rumor mill. And I do it from a position of inherent weakness. For one thing, the modern-day rumor mill — powered by email, text-enabled cell phones and social media — works much faster than a print news operation can. Secondly, I’m one guy trying to tell hundreds in one shot, whereas the rumor mill has your textbook pyramid arrangement.

But in this day and age, combating the rumor mill has never been more important.

For instance, one of the more recent stories I’ve worked on was the result of: 1) bad reporting, 2) an over-eager rumor mill, and 3) an over-eager rumor mill.

The first was the misreported story that said Rusty Wallace had pulled out of the ownership of the Iowa Speedway. It was picked up by a local news blog when someone reviewed a court document, but didn’t take the added step of due diligence to verify the information was correct.

Next thing you know, folks seem to think the Iowa Speedway is on the verge of financial ruin when in fact it’s on the verge of reaching the pinnacle of motorsports entertainment: hosting a NASCAR Sprint Cup race. I was then forced to stop what I was doing to complete the reporting of the story.

Why? Because of 1) an erroneous news blog report, 2) a segment of the population’s overzealous desire to lap up every salacious detail of “dirt” one might dig up about local “celebrities,” and 3) that same segment of the population’s overriding desire to pass it on to others who will likewise lap it up.

So, our news organization set the record straight. Of course, that didn’t prevent some to question our motivations for doing so. When the response should have been, “Boy, was that rumor ever wrong,” we instead dealt with far too many responses of “Looks like someone is trying to sweep it under the rug.”

Getting to the truth is always far more difficult and time consuming than speculation and conjecture. But, it’s always far more rewarding once you get it out there. The hardest part is getting those who bought into the rumor mill to accept it as truth.

One thing I can assure you as readers of the Newton Daily News is that we might not always be the first with “the news,” but when we do present it, the news will completely represent the facts that can be substantiated.

And when those who comment on those facts resort to idle speculation and conjecture based on rumor or innuendo, we will set the record straight. Our reputations as legitimate disseminators of the news require it.

Ultimately, that’s what separates the journalist from the blogger.

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If you’re reading this, thank a teacher. If you’re reading this in English, thank a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.

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Editor Bob Eschliman may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 423, or at beschliman@newtondailynews.com via email.

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