The Rush to Fight Rumors With Facts

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By: J. Randolph Murray

When I’ve been asked what it’s like to be a journalist, I’ve often remarked that for me it’s been a series of small adventures, punctuated by the occasional big adventure.

Last Friday, my day started with a misadventure and escalated rapidly.

As I walked through the door, I noticed the emergency lights were on in an otherwise darkened Macon Telegraph newsroom. Not a good sign.

People were already trying to figure out why the power was on in some parts of the building but not in the newsroom, which includes the closet where the servers that drive our computers are kept.

About that time I got a call (which I fumbled to answer in my dark office) from an Associated Press staffer in Atlanta wanting to know what we knew about a supposed “riot” in Marshallville.

A riot? In Marshallville? Whoa! I don’t think so. But tell me more.

What the AP had “heard” and was trying to verify or dispel was that someone had died at the hands of the police in the little Macon County town just south of Fort Valley the night before and “rioters” had burned down the police chief’s house.

What you may not realize is the vast international newsgathering operation of The Associated Press has a half-vast staff of AP reporters and editors. The news cooperative has reporters in all the major cities, but when it comes to the outlying areas, it relies heavily on legwork from member newspapers, radio and television stations.

Since The Telegraph is the closest/biggest AP member to Marshallville, we were tipped to the story and asked to check it out.

Meanwhile, the editors in Macon were also calling me, wanting to know what was going on in Marshallville.

Though we all were skeptical of the initial panicky reports, it’s like a fire bell going off. The adrenaline kicks in and you leap into action, ready for the big story — if it’s true.

Remember, at the time I’m still in the dark — literally and figuratively. The power is out in the newsroom, the phones are ringing off the hook with people wanting information that we’re still trying to gather, and one of our principal resources — the Internet, the fastest way to find phone numbers and locate people — is temporarily inaccessible.

So I dispatch reporter Matt Barnwell to Marshallville, with no clear idea of what he might find there. “Just head that way and we’ll keep you posted by cell phone,” I tell Matt. He was to meet up with photo chief Woody Marshall, who dispatched himself from Macon.

Becky Purser, our Houston Peach police reporter, and photographer Danny Gilleland would have gotten the first call, but they had been earlier drafted to cover a visit by the state school superintendent. They had — appropriately — turned off their cell phones while in the classroom and couldn’t be immediately reached.

Another call from the AP staffer in Atlanta — a former Telegraph reporter, by the way — relayed a rumor that the roads into Marshallville had been closed due to the possible “riot,” which might still be raging, for all they knew.

I scrounged up a phone book with Marshallville numbers, rushed it to the side of the building that had lights, and we started making calls. No answer at the police station, and the dispatcher for the Macon County sheriff’s office said only the sheriff could comment and he was not available.

The Macon office was pushing to get something posted on Macon.com, to tell online readers whatever we knew to be true. The only problem was that we didn’t know any facts — just unconfirmed rumors.

The power came back on — hooray! — then died again. A staffer who had gone next door to the CVS pharmacy reported they had a similar outage, as did the hospital across the street and that Flint was working on it.

Then reporter Jake Jacobs hit paydirt. He got Marshallville Mayor Gloria Dixon on the phone, and she told us, yes, a man had died in police custody the night before and, yes, the police chief’s house had been set on fire a few hours later but, no, investigators didn’t know if or how those events were connected.

But, she emphasized, there was no rioting, then or now. And nobody had closed the roads into town.

About that time, less than a half-hour after we started chasing down the story, Becky and Danny blew into the newsroom from their assignment at the school. Becky immediately started calling her vast stable of law enforcement sources for confirmation of what the Marshallville mayor had told us.

Danny, who’s been around for forever and a week, managed to contact someone he knows who confirmed that, indeed, Marshallville was not going up in flames — he knew because he had just driven through there on the way to work.

Within moments, a GBI agent confirmed the facts of Clarence Walker’s death, the arson at the police chief’s house and the ongoing investigation of both incidents.

Then, and only then, we banged out our story — a factual account of what happened, not wild rumors. We published the account first online, then in the newspaper, updating as we got more information.

Not the whole story, mind you. We still don’t know that.

We’re still answering questions about what happened that night and what led to the tragic events on the streets of Marshallville. We’ll publish those answers as we get them.

But in the excitement and confusion of the moment, we first got it right, before getting it in.

J. Randolph Murray is the editor of the Houston Peach edition of Knight Ridder’s Telegraph, which is headquartered in Macon, Ga. This article has been reprinted with permission after originally appearing here. Murray can be reached by e-mail at rmurray@macontel.com.

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