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On Rumors And Reporting: A Look At One Story That Still Generates Speculation

I'm likely not shocking anyone by noting that the Internet offers a venue in which rumor and speculation can spread further and faster than it could 10 years ago. One prolific rumor in the blogosphere recently – is Fidel Castro dead? St. Petersburg Times media critic (and one-time PE "Outside Voice") Eric Deggans took note on his blog of the buzz lately, wondering why at least some discussion of the rumor's existence hadn't yet seeped into mainstream coverage, as such "blogosphere buzz" stories often do. "The benefit of such stories are," writes Deggans, "they can introduce the rumor to your audience without requiring you to verify it -- since you're talking about the rumor itself and its impact. Crafty, eh?" Of course, the real challenge of good reporting is checking out a rumor and determining if it's actually true before you report it. But in this age of a much more prolific rumor mill on the Web, what are the challenges that reporters face? When do reporters have an obligation to simply address something unsubstantiated on the air, if only to note that it's unsubstantiated?

Monday is the 10-year anniversary of a story that was enveloped in a whole lot of speculation at the time – much of which surfaced on the still young Internet. It was the July 17, 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, which ended up being one of the most investigated crashes in aviation history. Correspondent Bob Orr covered the story from the beginning until the conclusion of the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation four years later, which determined that the probable cause of the plane's explosion was a spark – likely from a short in the plane's wiring -- that ignited the airliner's center fuel tank. Throughout the years that Orr covered this story, and continuing today, there are those who question whether the explosion was the result of something else – a missile, friendly fire from the U.S. navy, a terrorist bomb.

It became known as the "grassy knoll in the sky," Orr told me, primarily because "we spent more time knocking down rumors and false leads," than in any story he'd covered before then. The blogosphere didn't exist, but people were posting theories anonymously on Web pages. "We'd hear these theories," said Orr, "and invariably producers and executives would call asking about them, obviously just calling it to our attention."

The challenge then became what was worth addressing and what was not. As a news organization, "you can ignore rumors – possibly at your own peril – or you can check it out," said Orr. In the case of most of the speculation about Flight 800, "we were led down blind alley after blind alley," he said.

"We tried our best not to spend time knocking things down on air … but certain rumors were so pervasive that they inevitably made it into coverage."

Certain issues would "reach a tipping point editorially," said Orr. Cable news would be reporting the existence of speculation, or people would come forward claiming to have evidence "and you'd have to address it on the air."

For example, Orr addressed one bit of speculation in an "Evening News" story in September, 1996: "Numerous eyewitness reports of 'something' streaking in the sky the night of the crash are keeping the missile theory alive. But radar data shows no foreign objects and the jet likely was beyond the range of most shoulder-fired missiles."

The problem was that certain rumors could not be shot down or proven one way or another easily – or quickly, said Orr, because investigators couldn't prove a negative. "It probably took close to a year before sources I trusted could say definitively, 'we know a navy missile didn't shoot it down.' But the best they could do for a long time was say, 'that doesn't fit with the evidence we have.'"

Indeed, it wasn't until July 15, 1997 – a year after the crash – that this exchange between Jim Hall, then-chairman of the NTSB, and Orr took place during an interview for the "Evening News":

Orr: At this point you can rule out a large on board bomb?
Hall: Yes.
Orr: You can rule out a missile striking the airplane?
Hall: That's correct.
Orr: But you can't rule out the possibility of a small explosive charge directly on the tank?
Hall: No, that's one of the things we're looking at.
For a good deal of time before then, said Orr, the "Evening News," had to continually repeat that the cause of the crash could have been a missile, a bomb or a mechanical malfunction because investigators couldn't definitively rule things out. "Everything was on the table, so that's what we would report," said Orr.

"What you do as a reporter is try and let the facts guide you," said Orr. "But when the noise on the sidelines gets so loud that you're forced to confront what's out there, you do it, but put it in context. And that's not a very satisfying answer for viewers…and it's always a problem for reporters."

In the Flight 800 investigation, "we were always looking for that 'Eureka' piece of damage … the one [piece of wreckage] that would reveal the cause of the blast. But, they never found that 'Eureka' piece, because there wasn't one."

While the constant flow of those conspiracy theories and speculation had some influence on the story's extensive coverage -- Orr said the "Evening News" probably ran more than 40 stories on the crash over a four-year period – that wasn't the primary motivation for the extent of coverage, said Orr. "It was the second worst aviation disaster in history," he said. "There was this awful specter of a mid-air explosion, 230 people died …there's no doubt it was a huge story. But the conspiracy theorists probably perpetuated the story. They kept it a hot story longer."

"There are always people who will believe what they want to believe, form opinions they want. And there are lots of people who are convinced that the real story of Flight 800 still hasn't been told," said Orr, who added that he's confident the truth was told about Flight 800 in the NTSB's final analysis.

As for the current media landscape -- "For all the good things the Internet has to offer us," said Orr, "there's a darker side" in which information that hasn't been vetted is offered alongside reporting that's been thoroughly checked. "It takes a discerning reader to determine what's legitimate," said Orr.

On the other hand, notes Orr, "blogs have broken stories. If they had a zero track record, we wouldn't bother with them." However, he added, the "warp speed" at which news is presented today threatens that the time-consuming process of fact finding is superseded by the need to get information out quickly.

"It's harder now than it was 10 years ago," he said, "then, we weren't competing at the speed of light."