Chasing down news tips is much of what a reporter does. But with the World Wide Web, it’s become quite a thornier issue.

Chasing down news tips is much of what a reporter does. But with the World Wide Web, it’s become quite a thornier issue.

Take, for example, the tip – or, more accurately, the false rumor – of the demise of Voss, its hot dogs a summertime staple for the greater Utica area. There wasn’t a shred of truth to it, but it became news nonetheless.

It started with a posting – anonymous of course – on a local Web site. The posting suggested that Voss would be closing, to make way for a chain drug store. Then the rumor grew legs. Not only would Voss be going, but so too the Club Monarch, Daylight Donuts and Yorkville Auto Sales.

Whoosh! In the click of a mouse, four businesses affected, hot dog lovers horrified, doughnut lovers dismayed and brides baffled over where to re-book their receptions.
Not one scintilla of truth to the posting. Not one iota of fact. And, of course, not one named, reliable source to which the “information” could be attributed.

Our newsroom chose to run a story, to dispel the rumor and set the record straight. It would be a shame for a business to be harmed because of irresponsible prattle on a Web site.

But is this really the direction our news-gathering should take? If we spend our days and nights chasing every wild rumor perpetuated online, good grief, there will be no time left to pursue real news stories.

That’s the problem with online postings: complete and total lack of credibility. Folks with little else to occupy their time sit at a keyboard, and tap, tap, tap ill-informed opinion and unsubstantiated gossip and innuendo – without having to take responsibility for their words.

Their credibility is nil. Their veracity non-existent. Their “facts” usually flawed.
You’d do just as well to wander down to a bus depot or highway rest stop and check out the graffiti in the bathroom stalls. At least those folks take the time to use a pen or tube of lipstick.

People have always gossiped. Adam and Eve probably wished they had neighbors across the garden so they could talk about them. Whole industries have sprung up around gossip – supermarket tabloids, entertainment TV shows, Web sites. They thrive on the mantra of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story.

But in the news business, where facts do count, we have to be very cautious about lending credence to rumors or gossip.

We value tips; a great many important, solid, absolutely essential stories started with tips. Watergate most quickly comes to mind; but we can point to many, many local stories that also started with a tip, whether it be missing government records, or questionable public spending, or hinky hirings.

The difference is that we don’t print tips. We print carefully researched reports, with facts and names. We may start with a tip or a rumor, but it shouldn’t make it into print or onto our Web site as news until it’s been confirmed, and attributed and double-checked. And, when we make a mistake, we move quickly to correct it.

Here’s the best advice I can offer: If someone writes something and signs their name to it, give it some thought. If it’s anonymous, picture it on the wall of a bathroom stall – the credibility is the same.

Donna Donovan is president and publisher of the Observer-Dispatch. Contact her at: