Facts and Discussion Boards

There’s a great line that we often hear in newsrooms. It’s meant as a joke, but some non-newsies might wonder.

The line goes: Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.

The implication is that a reporter will ignore the facts in order to create a more interesting story, a story that will attract more readers than one based on facts.

Having become addicted to Facebook and newspaper discussion boards, I’m beginning to think the line is universal rather than limited to newsrooms. As I follow, in particular, the discussion at the sex abuse scandal connected in some way to Penn State, I marvel at the number of posts that are factually wrong. I marvel more when the originator is corrected and stands by his original posts.

The standard of proof is very low, unlike in any newsroom I ever worked in. Newsrooms, especially when working on controversial stories, have a two-source rule. You need at least two independent sources saying the same thing before you’ll consider putting the information in a story. And the sources can’t just be anybody.

There was a post the other day claiming that a certain downtown State College development project included a penthouse suite for former Penn State president Graham Spanier. I asked for a source. The originator said one of the developers told him that. Nothing on paper. Just hearsay.

A couple of weeks later Penn State, which had committed to two floors of office space (not a penthouse), backed out of the project and the Spaniers coincidentally purchased their own condo in a neighboring township.

That did not stop the posts about the penthouse.

Of course, the “facts” about Joe Paterno and what he did when informed of a former assistant’s behavior are as fluid as the Mississippi River. The ones that suit a person’s disposition toward Penn State or Paterno are the ones that get posted, followed by “corrections” from others.

I have enough examples to fill a book.

Now there’s an idea. A book.

When I see misinformation repeated on a discussion board, I am reminded of a quote attributed to Mark Twain (but which I can’t verify): Rumor is halfway around the world before truth gets out of the starting gate.

And that was before the Internet!


  1. I checked out your essay. I find it interesting that you were troubled by the comments relative to the Dr. Spanier penthouse/ Fraser street post from some days ago. You are correct in that we cannot believe all that we read in posts. There is much misinformation and much posted as fact without hard evidence.

    On the other hand, one can sometimes look at the comments as those of well-informed insiders who are onto something prior to the media. In such cases, the information posted poses a great opportunity for the media and those in authority to investigate the matter.
    The Spanier penthouse story is one that is FACT. The media either lacked interest or has not taken the time to research and document the story for publication. It is not a new story, it is simply one that is particularly interesting in light of recent events. It is also likely that those at PSU who made the decision to back out of the Frasier Center were well aware of this issue and the additional scandals that are associated with it. I give them credit for making the right decision in that regard.
    I happen to know that the New York Times is onto the story relative to the Fraser Center as they have been asking many questions about the Spanier angle. Sometimes comments are a prelude to the story that has not yet been written. This is the case here.
    Knowledge of this particular matter goes well-beyond simply what was told by a develper to a poster. There are probably hundreds of people in our community who are very familiar with this story and have ample evidence as to its truth.

  2. The Spanier / Fraser Center thing is indeed true. With few good reporters, the local media is often the last to get the scoop. Do you have a response, Spectator?

  3. Just because you say it's true doesn't make it true, which was the point of my essay. Document.

  4. That is correct. But when one is in a position to know it is true but is unable to speak publicly about it they are able to post it in the hope that a good investigative reporter will research it to confirm and publish once a story is confirmed. Nobody should take anything in a message board for fact. They should consider the opinions. The hope is that the reporters will look to uncover the supporting documentation for claims made on a matter.

    Perhaps you could look into the Spanier matter. The supporting evidence is EASY to obtain. You could then publish quite a scoop.

  5. Which newspaper discussion boards are those? The ones you mention here: "Having become addicted to Facebook and newspaper discussion boards, I’m beginning to think the line is universal rather than limited to newsrooms."

    Are these boards that discuss newspapers, or are you talking about the comments section under newspaper articles?

  6. Comments sections under newspaper articles.