Playing into a hoaxster’s hands

How the Virginia media got suckered

This is the story of a non-story that became a lead story — and, how competition stampeded news organizations into using it.

By Kerry Sipe

Kerry Sipe is public editor of The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 5 (August 1990), p. 4.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

Three homemade posters tacked to telephone poles in New Jersey encouraged rioters to come to Virginia Beach, Va., over the upcoming Labor Day weekend to burn and kill.

For weeks they were seen only by a few pedestrians strolling along a sidewalk in Newark. Then television and newspapers brought their ugly threat into every home in Virginia Beach.

The story was sure to inflame passions in the resort city, where citizens were already girding for a reprise of last year’s Labor Day weekend riots, when a mob of black students armed with bricks and bottles injured dozens of police and damaged millions of dollars of property.

Because the inflammatory flyers appeared to be nothing more than a malicious hoax, decision-makers in local newsrooms approached the story with caution at first. Copies of the handbill with its exhortations to “Burn The Beach in ’90” and “Drop a cop and win $500” were in the hands of reporters for nearly two weeks before a word about them was printed or broadcast.

But when they began to suspect they might be scooped by their competitors, caution was lost in a headlong rush to make the story front-page, top-of-the-broadcast news.

Local authorities say the journalists acted irresponsibly.

“It’s kind of like yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,” said one city official. “It’s unfortunate that some jerk in New Jersey can get this much attention by putting up an 8-by-11 piece of paper.”

Photocopies of the handbills were delivered to reporters by citizens who wanted the students to be barred from having their annual end-of-summer bash on the resort strip. They argued that the public had a right to know about the threat of violence so they could protect themselves.

Dennis Hartig, the editor who supervises Virginia Beach news for The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, declined to print the story at first for the same reason he had often declined to print false bomb threats. The resulting panic would play into the hands of the hoaxster.

“It’s very hard as an editor to try to figure out where the line is between informing the public and stirring up the public,” Hartig explained.

News directors at local television stations apparently shared Hartig’s reservations up to a point. They, too, sat on the story for nearly two weeks. But when Jay S. Mitchell, news director of WTKR-TV, learned that police were taking the handbills seriously enough to investigate, he decided his viewers should know.

Five minutes before his evening broadcast was to go on the air with the story, however, Mitchell yielded to a personal plea from the city manager and agreed to hold the story a while longer.

But within 24 hours, word of Mitchell’s intentions was out, and the resolve of other journalists to keep the story under wraps had evaporated in the heat of competition. Despite efforts by city officials to hold back the flood, the story eked out first on the wires of the Associated Press, then over local radio stations and in the afternoon editions of the newspaper. By the 6 o’clock news the next day, the handbills were the number-one topic of conversation on the streets of the resort city.

Mitchell, understandably, was sorry he agreed to wait. He called the incident “a classic case of the media in this town wimping out.”

But Mitchell felt even worse when he saw the angle the newspaper had taken on the story. 

The Virginian-Pilot led with the fact that exasperated city officials had accused “local TV stations” of acting in reckless disregard of the public interest by broadcasting the story.

In reporting those accusations, of course, the newspaper repeated all of the inflammatory details to its own larger audience.

A story which the newspaper had not considered even newsworthy two days earlier had become front-page headlines. The only thing that had changed was the willingness of other media to use the story.

Editor Hartig explained the change in news judgment this way: “I can’t make decisions in a vacuum. My audience was exposed to three (television) accounts last night about these handbills, so people were going to be talking about it . . . It was exposed to thousands of people.”

Local television news managers, however, considered the newspaper story to be a peevish attempt to punish competitors for being aggressive. One called it “a hack job.”

The newspaper was bound to be criticized whether it published the story or not, so avoiding criticism cannot be the basis for the editor’s decision.

But I don’t think the story qualified as news. If there is evidence that terrorists plan to descend on the city, by all means publish the story. If journalists believe that hordes of troublemakers have been mobilized, run it at 6 and again at 11.

But there was not an iota of substance to the story about the handbills. By publishing it, the media became the tools of the hoaxster and multiplied his mischief.

Editors decline to print stories every day because they are specious or irrelevant. This one was no different.

Did the likelihood that the story would be used by competing media make the story any more worthy? I don’t see how.

Competition is valuable to journalism when it makes reporters more energetic and aggressive in ferreting out the news. But when it is used as an excuse to abandon sound news judgment, consumers of the news are poorer for it. 

 

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