Rumour mills Editorial
Stabroek News
February 14, 2002

One of the most difficult things in the practice of journalism is to obtain and report information that is precisely accurate. This takes time, care and experience. Getting half a story makes it 'wrong' in important ways, it may lack balance and perspective. Getting some of the details wrong or omitting them may make the report misleading. Sometimes, indeed not infrequently, the person from whom the information is obtained makes errors, perhaps in complete good faith, and this can only be ascertained if it is checked with other sources. On other occasions, the main informant may only have some of the facts and it is necessary to interview another person, perhaps several others, to get all the facts and a rounded picture.

Lazy reporting is always bad reporting. Most of the initial reports of a story that a newspaper receives are inadequate and if an editor or a reporter goes with that alone he is just not doing his job. One has to be particularly careful, of course, if the source for the report is known to be hostile to or critical of the person or institution dealt with in the report. In that case, it would clearly be highly irresponsible merely to repeat allegations made, thus giving them further credibility. It is imperative to check that report with the other interest or interests involved.

Recently, there have been shocking instances of bad reporting where, for example, it has been suggested that there is a run on a bank or that the bank is unable to pay its depositors, without checking with the bank or the relevant authorities like the Bank of Guyana which is responsible for monitoring the performance of banks. That kind of reporting can cause considerable damage both to the bank concerned and the banking system as a whole as if it is believed, or if it creates fear, it can in fact lead to a run on the bank by misguided depositors or a lack of confidence in the financial system as a whole. In a situation like that the media are acting as rumour mills, regurgitating inaccurate or maliciously inspired information. Ultimately, of course, such crass reporting can harm numerous innocent depositors, the majority of them quite small. The only remedy the bank has is to file legal action against the offenders, a remedy that is increasingly unattractive given the state of the delay in the judicial system.

What distinguishes responsible media from rumour mills is that they make every effort to check their facts before printing or broadcasting a report. The more scrupulously a newspaper or television or radio station does this the higher is its standard of professionalism and the more respect it is entitled to as a source of news. The rumours or malicious reports about banks are not of course the only ones that have been circulated and reported in recent times.

Good journalism is not easy and there are no short cuts. One learns, too, that even the most reputable people frequently have their facts wrong. When you check what they have told you it transpires that they got part of what they heard, usually secondhand, right and the rest wrong or they summarised or transmitted it in their own words, thus giving it a different spin or slant. The job of the experienced reporter is to be alert for a good story but when one comes along to use his or her skill and experience to subject it to careful investigation and processing. Without that, the news process will always be highly contaminated and it will be hard to distinguish fact from rumour or fiction. The indirect effect on the social, economic and political situation of a polluted news stream need not be spelt out. Suffice it to say that it makes honest and well informed public debate difficult.