On Media: Anatomy of a rumor

Dec 4, 2007 at 9:29 pm

Imagine a legitimacy tree that all rumors must climb, with the peak being the lead story on a local TV newscast. The roots are whispers among friends about something that sounds like it could possibly happen if certain things occur in a certain way, and well, wouldn’t it be cool if it were true.

Climbing the legitimacy tree, rumors must wedge their way online, starting, perhaps, with folks who post pure speculation. At some point, the story gets picked up by someone in the media. Then, maybe the rumor makes the jump to talk radio. That’s where many rumors stall and die.

But then, there’s a small number, like a determined sperm swimming upstream, that break all the way through to the legitimate media. Such was the case on Nov. 20, when WHAS-TV led its 6 p.m. newscast with the rumor that football coach Steve Kragthorpe was considering leaving U of L for SMU.

The station opened its newscast at 6 with the report from sports director Kyle Draper that Kragthorpe was “50-50” to leave.  Draper got his information from the school’s football sports information director Rocco Gasparro, who had been fielding questions about it all day. But Gasparro told me he told the same story to every media member who called, and that he hadn’t actually talked to Kragthorpe.

Gasparro has been through this routine before with Bobby Petrino. This time, instead of squelching the rumor, Gasparro fueled it. He said he was surprised at WHAS’ treatment of the story, and in fact called afterward and asked Draper to tone it down. Too late.

Adam Neft, the host of a sports talk radio show on WKRD-AM 790, said interest in the story from listeners was overwhelming that Tuesday. He said when he called Gasparro, and got the quote, the floodgates opened on the radio show. No other topic merited attention.

“He said there was a 50-50 chance the coach will take the job, and we wouldn’t blame him if he did,” Neft said.
WLKY-TV sports director Fred Cowgill told me he had the same information, at the same time, that Draper did. He chose not to mention the story at 6, and at 11 he mentioned it on the air because the rumor had become a conflagration. Everybody in town, it seemed, was talking about Kragthorpe’s leaving as if it were a done deal.
“My concern is that time-honored tenets we’ve been taught are either being ignored or tossed overboard.

Regular TV news is reporting rumors,” said Cowgill. “It’s the push by consultants for breaking news, for ratings and sexy stories.”

It may be the reality of the news business that upsets Cowgill. Those journalism ethics don’t play with a tabloid mentality. You can’t really blame WHAS for reporting the story. It had an official from the school saying the coach was 50-50 to leave. The rumor dominated the collective consciousness of the city. (No one at WHAS would comment for this piece.)

The story got its legs from Pat Forde, the former C-J columnist now with ESPN.com. Forde’s column, posted that Tuesday, said he had sources at SMU and Louisville indicating mutual interest. Afterward, Forde wrote in an e-mail that he’d been hearing the rumor for several days. “But after talking to several people Monday and Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, I believed it was legitimate, and worth including in my column. My bosses agreed.”

Forde said he didn’t talk with Kragthorpe himself before he wrote the story. But that’s the reality of reporting on the coaching carousel, as we’ve seen frequently around here. A mini-rumor about Kentucky coach Rich Brooks retiring made the rounds just days afterward, but never caught the fire that Kragthorpe’s story did.
“WHAS reported a story that’s not true. There are no consequences for leading with a story that is wrong,” Cowgill complained.

He’s right. And in fact, sensationalizing the story was the strategically shrewd thing to do in the chase for ratings during sweeps. While WHAS and WLKY were relatively close in the evening’s 6 p.m. ratings, WHAS got an unusual bump at 11. It pulled a 12.7, versus 9.0 for WAVE and 7.4 for WLKY.

On Wednesday, Kragthorpe called a highly anticipated news conference and announced he’d been on a recruiting trip, learned about the rumors and thought it necessary to call a press conference to say he’s staying at U of L. He didn’t mention SMU and called the speculation “total fiction.” He took no questions. End of story.

Rick Redding, Louisville’s media critic, writes frequently about media and politics on his blog, thevillevoice.com