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Opinions and rumors -- no matter, both need verification

Thursday, March 5, 2009 | 5:44 p.m. CST; updated 10:45 a.m. CDT, Monday, March 9, 2009

Dear reader,

I like the new content of the Missourian’s Opinion page and the new design in the print edition. Opinion editor Jake Sherlock has worked hard to bring in more diverse voices and make the page more provocative.

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I’m particularly impressed with columnists Tracy Barnes and Katy Steinmetz. They write with authority and grace. Their information comes from multiple sources, which are even more transparent online through abundant hyperlinks to original documents and stories.

It doesn’t matter whether I agree with their conclusions. I trust their facts, and they make me think with their opinions.

That goal is apparent now in the section flag. It reads: “Write. Reflect. Respond.” As Jake wrote earlier, Opinion is a place for community conversation.

Jake wants to spark conversation with new features. “Today’s Question” provides a prompt about a current issue. “Voices” quotes people who write letters, “tweet” on twitter.com, or comment on stories in ColumbiaMissourian.com.

One tweak: Last week in Voices, “Ayn Rand” made a comment. The name clearly is a pseudonym, most likely taken from the novelist and philosopher who died in 1982.

Jake urges those commenting on ColumbiaMissourian.com to use real names. In the print edition, it should and will be an absolute rule. There is no opportunity to respond directly in print on the same edition. A stricter standard should apply.

Enough opinion. On to beer pong.

Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert gave me one of those laugh-and-cry moments this week.

On Tuesday’s “Colbert Report,” the comedian described a “beer pong herpes outbreak.” The ping-pong balls in the popular drinking game can spread herpes.

A good story if true.

It wasn’t.

Colbert traced the real outbreak. News organizations ran a story that began as a joke piece on a humor Web site without actually checking the facts. One television station made the mistake, and then another followed the lead. And so on, and so on.

The nonstory reached national scope.

“They gave the story the serious treatment it would have deserved — had it been real,” Colbert said of a Fox News segment.

By the way, I didn’t trust Colbert. I checked.  

The Centers for Disease Control said on Feb. 23 that the story was a hoax, as Colbert reported. “Fox and Friends” ran its segment on Feb. 24, according to Yahoo News. I couldn’t find the segment on foxnews.com, but in an online segment called  “After the Show Show,” the hosts repeated the claims — and played a round of beer pong (without the beer).  

Plenty of blogs bit on the hoax. It made the rounds in some college newspapers.

Journalism makes a claim to verification. No other information source — not talk radio hosts or most bloggers or the guy down the block — puts such a stake in its credibility.

Occasionally, journalists don’t live up to the standard. I believe it’s the exception, which is why the lapses make for news.

And comedy.

Tom


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