Rebecca Rider column: National news

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 19, 2016

There’s a classroom and camp game called “Telephone” that I’ve always found a little disturbing. You may be familiar with it — one person whispers a word or phrase into a neighbor’s ear, and it goes on down the line. At the end, the original phrase is morphed, changed and has lost its original meaning. Somewhere, somehow, it got twisted.

Last week I watched an article I wrote get stretched and pulled through an international game of telephone.

It started with a tweet. One hundred and forty characters informing me that my story on the school board’s pepper spray discussion was picked up by the Associated Press.

When I went to read the AP story, I was horrified. Not only did the story cherry pick a single comment from a single board member, but it jumped to the conclusion that the comment specifically referenced transgender students. Both broke the rules of journalism as I knew them.

Ten minutes after I got the tweet, I started getting e-mails. By the next morning, the wrong version of the story was in nearly every major news outlet in the country.

Watching something you’ve written – an incorrect version — unfold on a national stage is utterly surreal. It’s a tsunami of comments, tweets, phone calls and constantly updating blog posts that no one can stop.

I did the most unspecific Google search I could think of and got a solid six-page return – all of the same story. For a while, the AP version was a top trending post on Reddit. It was on radio and television, and traveled by old-fashioned word of mouth. Rita Foil, the school system’s public information officer, told me she received international phone calls.

As a reporter in a small town – in a small town I grew up in – I started to feel a little bit territorial. The audacity of these people, dragging my town’s name through the mud for an undeserved reason.

And it wasn’t that this story became national news and people blurred the facts that was disconcerting – because that will always happen, and if a story draws national criticism for an honest reason that, too, happens.

It was the fact that a completely wrong version of the meeting went viral. That an off-hand comment suddenly turned into North Carolina encouraging high schoolers to pepper spray transgender students. And that this was the only version of the story being told on a international stage.

There’s just no way to fix that kind of damage.

A week after the storm, the headlines now say that the board will reconsider its pepper spray policy, and I’m starting to wonder if I’ll be rubbing elbows with out-of-towners at the board room press table on Monday. Or maybe, they’ll just rely on the Associated Press to tell the story — since they’ve been so reliable reporting meetings they did not attend. Maybe this time the news service will keep context, like reporters are supposed to, and use most of my story instead of lifting three sentences like some sort of inept cat burglar.

Or perhaps, we’ve all had our 15 minutes of unearned fame, and no one will care enough about Salisbury, North Carolina, to follow up or correct wrong information. But of course, they don’t have to live with it.