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THE OMBUDSMAN

When do rumors become real news?

THERE HAS been plenty of justified hand-wringing over how an unsourced -- and, it seems, utterly false -- rumor about John Kerry and a young woman went so quickly from a cyber gossip website to the mainstream media.

 

What's not been explained to Globe readers is why the paper handled the matter in the way it did, acknowledging the rumor but only as part of Kerry's denial.

Some feel the Globe should have ignored the rumor entirely, but most readers who called or wrote on the topic last week said the opposite -- that the Globe should have done more.

Here's what happened, and some insight into the Globe's reasoning.

By the time the rumor appeared on the Drudge Report website on Feb. 12, the Globe had already spent two weeks trying to verify a similar rumor about Kerry, to no avail. "We did our work and determined there was not enough to go on," said John Yemma, the editor overseeing presidential campaign coverage.

So when the Drudge rumor hit the Internet, the Globe had reason to be skeptical and chose to ignore it. So did most mainstream papers, properly wary of what now looks like a smear campaign. But a few, mostly of the tabloid variety, ran the story Friday. Conservative talk radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh also spread it on the airwaves.

On Friday Kerry was asked about the rumor during a radio interview with Don Imus, and categorically denied it. His denial (and, necessarily, a brief description of what was being denied) became part of the Globe's next-morning story on Kerry's campaign day. "It was a public statement from a public figure in a public forum," said Yemma, and it could not be ignored. Two days later, when the woman in question issued her own denial, the Globe again noted that in a few paragraphs.

Let's take the minority opinion first. Was the Globe wrong to acknowledge the rumor at all?

Not in my view, and not in the view of some journalism ethicists I queried on the topic. "While journalists should be exceptionally cautious in reporting on rumors, there are times when it's proper," said Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute, a media think tank. In this case, he said, "to ignore the denial could be construed as being unfair to Kerry by preventing his denial from reaching some who had heard the rumor."

Further, by not overplaying the story, and simply making it part of the report on the candidate's day, the Globe met the "proportionality" standard.

But what about readers who say the Globe tried to deep-six the story? Many of those readers also say the Globe has been too aggressive in pursuing questions about President Bush's past military service. As Bush supporters, they see it as the latest example of liberal bias. The Globe editorial page's endorsement of Kerry in the New Hampshire primary only fuels their sense the paper is trying to protect the favored hometown candidate.

"I wish the Globe would explain its idea of fairness. It spends thousands of dollars trying to prove that President Bush missed a few meetings of the National Guard, and then there's a report that Kerry might have committed adultery, and they dismiss it with two lines," said Jim Mahony of West Roxbury.

Gerard Kelly of Framingham made the same comparison, reminding the Globe of its "obligation to report the (Kerry) news, even if you don't want to."

From reader Dave Pasquantonio: "Am I the only reader who thinks that if there were similar allegations of a Republican presidential nominee having a recent affair with an intern, it would . . . find its way to either the front page or the op-ed section?"

No, he's not, which makes his concern worth addressing -- even though I think the Globe handled the matter properly.

If the rumor had been supported by the Globe's reporting or that of another reputable paper, I believe the Globe would have played it as prominently as any such story. But the Globe's early investigation didn't transform rumor into proof.

Neither, critics might respond, has reporting on Bush's military service turned up proof of wrongdoing. True, but the reporting has revealed that military records don't reflect what Bush maintains is true -- that he kept up his required National Guard duty in Alabama. That is a fact and worth reporting, just as the Globe in 1992 aggressively reported on Bill Clinton's draft records.

If new rumors -- the kind that, if true, reflect something important about character -- surface about Kerry, the Globe should investigate. The paper has proven its willingness to look at Kerry's past; the series last summer that examined his actions in Vietnam is one example; a look at his not-Irish-after-all heritage is another.

Over the years, the Globe has investigated rumors about the personal lives of presidents and candidates. When the facts didn't bear out the rumors, nothing was written. I know that Republicans as well as Democrats have benefited from that doctrine of good journalism. And that is as it should be.

The ombudsman represents the readers. Her opinions and conclusions are her own. Phone 617-929-3020 or, to leave a message, 929-3022. Our e-mail address is ombud@globe.com.

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