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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Lies, Damn Lies and Rumors . . .

This began as musings on the cult of personality but evolved of its own accord. Words do that to me sometimes.

I arrived at the newsroom yesterday (Saturday, Feb. 11) to find CNN, ABC and Reddit reporting a rash of Weibo (China's version of Twitter) messages saying Kim Jong-un (the Norks' new leader, affectionately known as Fat Boy) had been assassinated in Beijing. These reports were quickly picked up by Doctrine Man and facebook friends interested in the state of the world. Other friends who also live in South Korea were questioning the veracity of the story, particularly one who was due to board a flight from China back to Seoul. I'm not quite sure why he felt less inclined to do so if Fat Boy had been terminated with extreme prejudice (by ninja assassins, no less, according to the ABC report) as he didn't leave the country when Big Daddy (Kim Jong-il of "I'm so ronery" fame) died, but he seemed concerned.

The CNN article said neither the Chinese state media nor Yonhap News Agency, the South Korean national news agency for which I work, were reporting on such a rumor.

Rumors are a constant in the news industry and not reacting to them is often the sign of true professionalism. It's all too easy to try to be first with the news and more difficult to wait for confirmation and accuracy. The U.S. had a classic case of just that situation last month when most media outlets prematurely reported the death of Joe Paterno but AP consciously held off while they sought verification. Interestingly enough, the same thing happened after the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords a year earlier, most outlets reported her death while AP held off for confirmation and ran the truth, without adding unsubstantiated rumors. (The article on how the Paterno story played out is well worth the read. H/T to Isaac Cubillos for that, or was it James Ian Burns?)

I asked the desk head on duty if we were going to address the rumors of Fat Boy's demise and learned we weren't, at that stage anyway. Rumors about the Norks are a constant here next door and no alarm bells were ringing for us, or apparently for the U.S. Embassy or the U.S. military. (Sometimes the mere availability of specific people at the end of a phone gives more information than anything they might say, particularly when it's information they can't disclose.) I informed my friends that the rumor seemed unfounded, with the proviso that the Norks kept the deaths of its last two dear leaders well-hidden for two days.

Then today, Whitney Houston's death was announced, and I watched on facebook as multiple people questioned the truth of the reports, despite confirmation from her publicist and the Beverly Hills police. (This was in part due to one dark-humored friend posting an ABC article from Sept. 13, 2010 denying reports of Houston's death. Many people fell for his joke. Some were also offended, but that belongs in the Cult of Personality post, when I write it.)

Which brings me to what most right-minded people (and myself) hate about the media today, or what my significant other refers to as the "commie-liberal-pinko-hippie-media," as opposed to journalism, which is my current field of employment.  Most popular media outlets on both sides of the spectrum, whether they be the rants of Fox (not-)News or the saccharine melodrama of ABC, would rather be the first to break a story, true or not, than risk being scooped in the service of accuracy. In print terms, the shocking headline goes above the fold on page 1, the subsequent correction is usually buried deep inside a day or two later. In Internet terms, the story simply gets rewritten in many cases and no mention of an embarrassing "Oops!" moment needs to even exist.

As someone who has always preferred to be on page three with the truth than page one with a beat-up, a preference that has had me at odds with at least one chief reporter, I wish more media outlets applied AP's diligence and stopped giving journalism a bad name.

Oh, and as far as we yet know, Fat Boy is still undead (and probably drooling) while Houston definitely does have a problem.