Our View: Verify stories before ‘feeding the beast’

December 28, 2012

So much in life boils down to personal responsibility — choosing to speak and act in appropriate ways and accepting the credit or scorn that comes with those actions.

It also is important to consider and understand the impact of your words and actions before you speak or act.

Days ago, the Sedalia community was whipped into a fervor over baseless rumors about a plot of violence purported to occur Dec. 21 at Smith-Cotton High and S-C Junior High schools. As reported by the Democrat’s Emily Jarrett, Pettis County Chief Juvenile Officer Mike Hughes said that some teens’ lunchtime conversation about “the zombie apocalypse” and the Mayan calendar projection about the end of the world was overheard and became the seed of an unnecessary flurry of misstatement and paranoia.

As the rumors and fearmongering grew more rampant, school officials took proper steps to trace the story back to its origin, question the students who engaged in that initial conversation and dismiss the entire ordeal as baseless. Along the way, a slew of students and adults accepted and repeated as truth a story that never should have reached such a fever pitch.

Assistant Superintendent Brad Pollitt told Jarrett: “(S)afety is our No. 1 concern and we took this investigation very seriously, but nothing came out of it.”

Some common sense and rational thinking would have served the entire community well in this ordeal. The student or students who overheard the initial conversation, if they truly believed it could serve as a credible threat, should have brought it to the attention of the school resource officer or building principal immediately, rather than cranking up the rumor mill. Failing that, everyone along the way should have simply asked, “How do you know that?” and “Why should I believe that?” of the person retelling the story.

We are reminded of the advice of a wise journalism professor, who tells young reporters, “If your mother tells you she loves you, get a second source.” In other words, verify a story — especially something that could provoke such an emotional reaction — before you “feed the beast” by perpetuating it. That doesn’t mean legitimate threats should be dismissed, but a lot of energy and resources are wasted in debunking rumors that should have been quashed at their source by people who should know better than to repeat them.

The district and local law enforcement took appropriate steps, but they were steps that would not have been needed if students and adults had exhibited some personal responsibility instead of feeding that beast.