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By Jeremy Schiffres, Daily and Sunday Freeman, Kingston, N.Y.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Just the facts, Ma'am

There’s an old saying in the newspaper business: “When in doubt, leave it out.” It means that if you’re not sure about something, don’t report it.

A woman in Red Hook should have taken that advice on Friday.

I didn’t get her name, but she called me at the Freeman City Desk about 6:30 p.m. to ask if I knew what was going at Hudson Valley Mall. She said she had heard the town of Ulster shopping complex was in “lockdown” because there was an armed man on the loose inside.

Referring her to a story that already had been on the Freeman’s Web site for about two hours, I assured her that no such crisis existed. It was a case of mistaken identity, I told her, in which a person had called 911 about 3:40 p.m. to say there was an armed man in the mall’s parking lot, heading for the Citizens Bank branch near Macy’s, but that police quickly discovered the “suspect” was an off-duty cop who was carrying his service weapon. I told the woman that the situation did cause a brief flurry of activity outside the mall – police cars from three agencies had swooped in, and some of the officers were donning bullet-proof vests when a Freeman photographer reached the scene – but that the tension dissipated quickly when authorities realized there was no threat to the public’s safety.

The woman thanked me for the information and then asked me for the URL to the Freeman’s Web site. I assumed she simply wanted to read the story I had just described. But, in fact, she said she wanted to put a link to our story on the Web site operated by her community group. And she assured me she would remove the erroneous information from her group’s site immediately.

What she was telling me, I suddenly realized, was that she had posted the equivalent of a news story on her group’s site to inform the public that an armed man was on the loose inside the mall. She hadn’t bothered to call police, the mall or anyone with knowledge of the situation before posting the information; she simply accepted as fact what she had heard as a rumor, and she repeated it in such a way that readers of her group’s site probably believed it.

This is what scares me about the Web, and it’s a perfect example of why people should be skeptical of what they read online.

The Web is a virtually boundless resource of useful information, to be sure, but it also is cluttered with inaccurate nonsense posted by people who – simply because they can -- act as news reporters without having any training in the profession. They mean well, I’m sure, but they often wind up doing more harm than good by writing and posting what they believe to be true rather than what they know to be true. (In the case of the Friday incident, for instance, imagine the reaction of someone who read the Red Hook woman’s “story” and became gripped by fear because a family member was shopping in the mall at the time. How awful.)

News reporting is not the regurgitation of gossip, rumors and speculation. It is a craft that requires thoroughness, accuracy, attention to detail and an absolute certainty that what is being written is true.

And it is best left to the professionals.



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