The call came in Tuesday morning.
“Why haven’t you reported on the tax hike to fund SunTrust Park?” The caller explained that Chairman Tim Lee “in the last couple of days” had announced there would be a county tax increase to fund construction of the new Braves stadium.
I admitted I hadn’t heard of this development and doubted the report’s accuracy.
“But it’s all over the internet,” the caller responded. He then emailed to me links to three articles as proof of his contention.
Sure enough, the stories from nbcsports.com, si.com (Sports Illustrated) and deadspin.com not only talked of a tax hike, but that money set aside to be used for purchase of park land had been used instead to fund the stadium construction.
The headlines read:
“Cobb County Georgia can’t fund its public parks because of the Braves stadium”
“Cobb County redirected funds for public parks to build Braves stadium”
“Cobb County Needs To Raise Taxes To Pay For Public Parks Because All The Park Money Already Went To The Braves’ New Stadium”
The websites at Deadspin and NBCSports attributed their stories to another website, Fieldofschemes.com, described as a companion website to the book “Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit.”
Field of Schemes and Sports Illustrated attributed their stories to the “At Issue” feature in ajc.com. “At Issue” doesn’t post actual news stories, rather it publishes a brief recap of an ongoing issue and invites readers to comment.
Each site wrote its own story and each version heightened the potential for taxpayer outrage. The story spread rapidly on websites, social media and email.
Remember playing the “telephone game” when you were a kid? A message is whispered from one person to another along a line and then the final message is compared to the original. It’s hilarious, but not a legitimate newsgathering process.
In journalism school, we were taught the evils of the “one-source story,” that to be complete and accurate one must verify and confirm with at minimum two sources. I was struck that none of these articles quoted anyone or attributed the “facts” to anything other than another website. A check with Cobb County government confirmed that no staff or elected officials had fielded any related inquiries. In my mind, these were “no-source stories.” Welcome to the digital age, where stories are no longer vetted, but taken for fact regardless of the source. No time for checking. It’s more important to publish first, go viral and gain audience.
The issues of the parks bond revenue and SunTrust Park are complicated and irresponsibly explained in a 300-word rant.
For the life of me I can’t recall Chairman Lee calling for a tax hike this week to fund the Braves stadium as the Tuesday caller claimed (and we generally keep up on these types of things). Still, I asked around, just to make sure. It’s called a multi-source story.
The following email was sent to officeholders, candidates for office, civic activists and others known to be familiar with the topics:
“I’m taking an informal poll, the results of which may or may not end up in the MDJ. I came across this headline on Sports Illustrated’s website, si.com. ‘Cobb County redirected funds for public parks to build Braves stadium.’ Is this headline accurate? Yes or no?
Many respondents answered concisely. Others shared detailed explanation of the bond process, history of referendums and pertinent commission votes, etc. in explaining their response. My intent was to whittle the answers to as close to Yes or No as possible.
— JoAnn Birrell, district commissioner
“The headline is incorrect, or misleading at best.”
— Larry Savage, candidate for chairman in May primary
“Absolutely not. Parks bond was never done in 2008.”
— Bob Weatherford, district commissioner
“I think the correct answer is that it is not entirely accurate, but it is also not entirely inaccurate. … Parks bond money is not being used toward the Braves stadium … however are there funds that were intended toward public parks that have been diverted to projects connected with the Braves?”
— Ron Sifen, member and past president of the Cobb County Civic Coalition
“100% inaccurate. Not close. More examples of very irresponsible journalism that some feel is OK to pile on.”
— Mike Plant, president of development for the Braves
— Tim Lee, Cobb chairman
“Not that I am aware of. First I’ve heard of that.”
— Bob Ott, district commissioner
“I believe that SI used this headline from an article in … some business journal. I have seen it in so many emails this week that I have lost track. Let’s just say that some of my friends say it is true and some say it is not, and I always agree with my friends.”
— Mike Boyce, candidate for chairman in July runoff
— David Hankerson, county manager
So there you have it.
Since the rise of the internet, journalism has gone through many changes. Media outlets are able to disseminate news faster and in more ways than ever before. However, it’s disheartening to think that this kind of echo-based reporting is becoming the norm. Today, it’s more important than ever to give readers information that has been vetted and gives both (or more) sides of the issue.
Once misleading or inaccurate information propagates as news in this digital age, it’s impossible to put that genie back in the bottle.