Exclusive! the headline screamed: “U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts considering stepping down.” The story was posted around mid-day last Thursday on the gossip site Radar Online, owned by the National Enquirer. It said Roberts might step aside for personal reasons and could announce his decision at any time.
While other sites, including the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report, linked to the story, mainstream news organizations started checking. Within half an hour, Radar posted an update based on “new information” that Roberts will stay on the bench. But the site continued to insist that its original story was well-founded:
Despite considering resigning from the U.S. Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Roberts will stay on the bench, RadarOnline.com has exclusively learned. As RadarOnline.com was first to report, Roberts, 55, was considering resigning from the nation’s highest court due to personal reasons. RadarOnline.com has now learned Roberts will in fact remain as Chief Justice.
That night, NBC’s Brian Williams told a black tie dinner in Washington, DC, that his network’s Justice correspondent, Pete Williams, had knocked the entire story down in about seven minutes. “Let’s just call it ‘primary sourcing,'” Williams said.
But where did the story come from in the first place? Did Radar just make it up to generate Web traffic, as some commenters on the site suggested? Not exactly. Turns out, a professor at Georgetown Law School was trying to teach his Thursday morning class something about the credibility of informants. As David Lat writes at Above The Law, Professor Peter Tague told his class they’d be hearing big news the next day from the Supreme Court about Roberts’ resignation. He also told them not to tell anyone.
“It was an exercise,” Williams said, “but in 30 minutes it had been Tweeted out of the classroom” and you know the rest. “Facts are tougher,” Williams said. “Information is easy. Facts are very tough. They’re best when they’re right. And we’ve got to get it right every day and every night.”
Is there a lesson here? I’d say there are several. 1) No story is too good to check. 2) Mainstream journalism still has standards that set it apart from (much of) the blogosphere. And 3) Primary sources beat rumors every time.