To publish or not to publish? That is the question when it comes to unsubstantiated statements and gossip. But when the information is already publically circulating, the debate becomes whether the rest of the public has a right to know.
Rumors rear their ugly heads most obviously and emphatically around election time, when candidates are frantically searching for ways to discredit their opponents – which often leaves journalists scratching their heads about what to do with widespread mud-slinging.
There are many other instances, though, where hearsay, local lore, and myths seem to add character, depth, and even an attractively mysterious quality to a story, particularly in the travel realm. In addition, the lack of ancient documentation or gaps in our historical knowledge can mean that trying to sift through the past to work on a story runs us smack into the smack talk of yore. Also, controversy, conjecture, and scientific limitations often collide with religious and cultural beliefs – two good examples would be the Shroud of Turin and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Most journalists and writers for mainstream publications follow the general guidelines for dealing with rumors in stories that are best described by the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St.Petersburg, Fla., and a respected resource for journalism ethics. In its policy on rumors, Poynter suggests:
- Seek truth and report it as fully as possible.
- Act independently.
- Minimize harm.
The main concern with a story based in any part on rumor is that you as a writer may be giving credence to a complete falsehood – and you might give it stronger legs. We all know how quickly information moves in the Internet age, and incorrect information seems to have the cruel capacity to advance at warp speed – not to mention the shelf life of a petrified Twinkie.
When it comes to historical figures, the origins of artifacts, and fuzzy timelines, you do have a bit more leeway. As long as you are careful to fully acknowledge the limitations of missing documentation and perform due diligence in investigating the facts, a thoroughly researched story that includes historical rumors sometimes enhances a travel story. Again, adhering to the guidelines will ensure no missteps:
- Gather as many of the facts around the issue as you can. Offer them point by point, countering and exploring each aspect of the rumor to the best of your ability. Quote legitimate historians and document your findings as well as the findings of experts.
- Be certain that you are not acting in the interests of any involved party. It’s easy to get caught up in the tales of a local who wants his or her side of the story told, especially if the lore revolves around an ancestor, property with a vested interest in the outcome or a destination that could financially benefit.
- Remember that your story serves as another historical record. If it does nothing more than perpetuate the rumor, it will not serve posterity.
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]