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The Great Volcanic Steam Vent Rumor (and other adventures in accountability journalism)

The blogosphere was humming last week with the “news” that a steam vent had opened at Sunset Crater, a dormant volcano north of Flagstaff.

Only it wasn’t news, just a post by an overheated blogger in St. Louis who apparently monitors volcanoes via satellite images of cloud cover. This one showed a wisp appearing over the crater, and the game was on.

By the time anyone had time to check with the USGS and National Park Service, what turned out to be a cloud or maybe a stray smoke tail from a controlled burn had generated tens of thousands of page views on the blogger’s site and had taken local social media by storm.

This rumor had the power of visuals behind it and played off the general suspicion that government will not tell us the bad news, even when they know it. But with no fewer than a half-dozen different agencies in Flagstaff with seismographs that would have picked up that kind of movement in the crater, it would have had to have been a very big conspiracy of silence indeed.

So after we posted our debunking explanation on our Facebook, I made the decision that this rumor would live and die on the Daily Sun’s social media platforms, not its newspaper website or in print. Once the mainstream media start chasing Sasquatch sightings, there won’t be much time for real fact-checking and watchdog journalism. And posting to a newspaper website gives the rumormonger the legitimacy he or she craves.

That’s doesn’t mean we don’t check out social media tips about natural phenomena – especially if they are locally observed or felt We’ve confirmed earthquake tremors and meteorite videos taken from the roof of a Flagstaff house. And we are committed to what is called “windshield journalism”: If you see smoke on the horizon while driving across town, we need to be able to tell you within minutes whether it is a prescribed burn or a wildfire.

But not all accountability journalism is so easily sourced. Public agencies eventually have to turn over records if asked, but private companies and foundations not so much. Anonymous donors to so-called Dark Money campaigns aren’t as easily traced, but voters deserve to know who is behind those dinnertime robocalls and nonstop TV ads.

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Then there are the fact checks we do on campaign claims, which is akin to shooting ducks in a barrel. Campaign sound bites, by definition, lack context and balance, so providing them in a fact check usually casts doubt on the credibility of the candidate identified with the ad.

Lately, this check on misinformation has brought charges of bias – or at least less confidence in the practice among Republicans than Democrats (the former apparently see the news media as too liberal to be objective). And studies have shown fact checks of nonpolitical speakers are more likely to change opinions than when politicians are fact-checked. Then, party affiliation is still the most important factor.

Nevertheless, 8 in 10 Americans approve of fact-checking by journalists and want more of it – which, as the 2016 election season revs up, seems unavoidable.

Another level of accountability journalism is cutting through the he said/she said dueling experts. This is aided by academic institutes like the Shorenstein Center at Harvard that review the latest studies on contentious issues like climate change, gun violence and minimum wages. It helps journalists get past the false equivalencies that come from a tradition of balance and fairness – qualities that can be abused by those with only minimal facts on their side.

Instead, the outliers are turning to social media to go around the mainstream media – and volcanic steam vents are the result. We have enough to do sorting out real smoke on the horizon and real minimum wage debates at City Hall. Check out our occasional Facebook posts, though, as a hedge against the rumor mill – and a way to blow off some steam.

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Randy Wilson is editor of the Arizona Daily Sun. You can reach him at rwilson@azdailysun.com or (928) 556-2254

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