The grisly killing of Robert Godwin Sr., the man who was walking along a Cleveland street when a gunman shot him in the head and then posted the killing on Facebook has left an entire community stunned, nauseous, and worried.
The anxieties were heightened with comments from gunman Steve Stephens both before and after the killing. Tens of thousands of people saw the posting immediately. It went viral around the world before Facebook took it down.
But then others jumped on Facebook. That was when the rumor mill of Stephens whereabouts took off. We were swamped with people who had heard Stephens was seen in various locations. As of this writing, Stephens is still on the run and the manhunt is reaching throughout Ohio and into several states.
From the point of Stephens posts on Facebook and the anxieties which swirled through the Greater Cleveland community, the fact of the situation began to merge with fiction of it. Callers were saying they knew a certain scenario to be true because they heard about it or saw it on Facebook. Those on Facebook began to quote each other. The misinformation ballooned.
So much so, Cleveland Police issued a statement saying that misinformation can be dangerous. It is all rumor which can take a life of its own, bouncing from one person to another and ending up sounding as if the rumor is truth. We in journalism will take our time to verify what we report or at least attribute the information to a credible source.
However, when the telephone rings and there is a voice on the other end, we do not break in with a report on a rumor. We report reports. We follow up on tips from callers to see if, indeed, the tip is real and not a fabrication or a piece of misinformation.
With Facebook and Twitter, everyone with the service has the potential to become a broadcaster or a publisher. Misinformation is flying through cyberspace along with information which has been verified as truth.
Ever since I began the study of journalism in college and worked in a career as a newsman, I have kept in mind we journalists must be careful to not report rumors or hearsay. We will follow up on any piece of information which comes in and if verifiable, we then report it.
If someone said something worthy of reporting, even if it from a police officer or government official, we will identify the person who said and when the comment was made. If someone speaks to us on condition of anonymity, we will report that as well as identify the person as a knowledgeable and credible source of information.
There is an old saying many generations old in journalism: "A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth gets its shoes on." That phrase was coined years before computers, telephones, or broadcasting. But the phrase is vital to journalism. In this age of information, words are even more important because they can be flashed around the world with lightning speed.
Both the truth and the lie are only a computer click of a finger from going around the world. We must ensure as much as we can what we report is the truth.