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From AJR,   April/May 2012  issue

A Cautionary Tale   

The important lesson to be learned from the media’s “Nikki Haley is going to be indicted” debacle. Weds., April 11, 2012.


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

The "Nikki Haley is going to be indicted" saga is an important cautionary tale for our overheated media environment.

It's a vivid reminder, as if we needed one, that there's big danger in running with anything that anybody happens to post or publish without checking it out.

There's a school of thought that says the rules are different in the Internet era. You can post or tweet whatever you see or hear, and if it turns out to be bogus, no problem. You just say the initial story was wrong and move on. It's self-correcting, see?

Except erroneous stories have real-world consequences. The correction doesn't always catch up with the mistake. The genie is not so easily put back in the bottle.

To recap:

On March 29, a deservedly little-known blog called the Palmetto Public Record posted an item suggesting that Haley, the governor of South Carolina, was going to be indicted for tax fraud. The piece reported that "two well-placed legal experts" said they expected a federal indictment, perhaps that very week, and that a "highly ranked federal official has also privately confirmed rumblings of an investigation and possible indictment of the governor." (Don't you love it when "rumblings" are confirmed?) There was no comment from Haley, a Tea Party favorite who has been mentioned as a possible Republican vice presidential candidate, and no indication that comment had been sought.

In a valuable story in the New York Times Monday, Jeremy W. Peters laid out what happened next. Within minutes, reporters from a wide variety of news organizations, many highly respected, were tweeting about the "scoop." Soon blog posts appeared. The following morning, the State in Columbia, the highest-circulation daily in South Carolina, had a story on the looming indictment.

Trouble was, there was nothing to the story. Nothing. Zilch. Haley's office later released a statement from the IRS saying that there was no investigation. Before that, she had implored the State to ignore the flap. She told Peters, "I said, 'Why are you doing this? There are no facts here.' " But the paper was undeterred.

This, of course, took place at the end of March, or 100 years ago in Internet time. We've moved on to other media mishegas. (How many college newspaper editors have been forced to resign over April Fools editions gone terribly wrong? Maybe it's time to scrap the genre.)

But before we let it go, it's worth reflecting on this episode, because it perfectly encapsulates where we are. And it's not a pretty place.

The issue isn't new, of course. It's been with us since the start of the Internet era, and even well before that. There's always the temptation to pick up a sexy story that's "out there," even without any notion of whether there's anything to it, simply attributing to another news organization.

But in the fiercely competitive 24/7 world of today, the pressure is especially hard to resist. Everyone wants to be part of the conversation. Everybody wants the eyeballs. No one wants to seem behind the curve.

But is that really where we want to be? Is journalism simply a matter of putting up anything, any rumor or innuendo or too-good-to-check tip, and seeing if it sticks?

There's a reason stories are checked out. Because journalism is supposed to be about facts, about printing what is true, or at least trying as hard as you can to find out, not an embrace of the anything goes supermarket tabloid approach.

According to Peters' story, Haley "fears that the episode may have done lasting damage to her reputation. She said she was not certain that it could be easily repaired."

She has reasons for those fears. And yet news organizations tweeted and posted and published (it doesn't matter which) serious allegations against her, based on anonymous sources in an obscure blog, without giving it a second thought.

Let's hope that the next time a similar situation emerges, those news outlets will heed the lessons of the Nikki Haley debacle and at least make a halfhearted stab at determining the truth.

But don't bet heavily on it.