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Check, double check rumours

By SEAN DOUGLAS Friday, March 6 2009

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FEISTY DISCUSSION: CNN political director and vice-president, Sam Feist....
FEISTY DISCUSSION: CNN political director and vice-president, Sam Feist....

CNN political director and vice president, Sam Feist, said the false rumours about children in a shipping container on Tuesday showed the need for radio and television stations to check and double check such claims before reporting them as factual.

Feist yesterday addressed students at the University of the West Indies (UWI), St Augustine, on the role of the internet in the 2008 US Presidential Elections in the topic, “The impact of (ICT) technology on political campaigning.”

He recalled his initial scepticism when he himself had heard the rumours broadcast on Tuesday. “Critically I’m thinking ‘This can’t be true’. I heard no evidence”. He said all that was being broadcast was second-hand and third-hand reports and hearsay.

Feist advised the communication-studies students, “Wait until you go to a source of information before you believe a rumour.”

He recalled similar false rumours arising in the campaign of the recent US presidential election which he noted largely arose in the new media of the Internet including blogs, but which were eventually debunked by the traditional or old media.

He said he took a decision for CNN not to report an untrue rumour that other media houses were broadcasting which falsely claimed that Obama was a Muslim who had once attended a madrasa Islamic-fundamentalist school in Indonesia.

“Blogs can be an important indicator of something but news organisations that have the resources to go out and check are very important, especially in a democracy.”

He said CNN requires two separate and direct sources of information for every story they report. “Democracy is entirely dependent on the citizenry accessing trusted information.”

The children-in-a-container rumour, he said, was a textbook example of what could go wrong with media reporting. “Don’t report information that you don’t know to be true. Journalists hold a very special position in any democracy,” Feist elaborated in a question session.

While admitting CNN was not perfect, he said reporters should have certain guidelines. “It is important to have standards, ask tough questions and have reliable sources.” Asked about a career in journalism, Feist effused, “I can’t believe I’m paid to do this.” He said journalism was a mission and a calling. “It’s essential to the functioning of a democracy. Without a free and democratic press, there’s no democracy. Journalists provide a check on politicians.”

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