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Fugleberg: How the Noem-Lewandowski rumors became news

How could rumors become news without additional evidence, especially something as salacious as an alleged affair between South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem and Corey Lewandowksi, a Trump World mover and shaker and Noem's informal adviser? Sometimes the decision about what's newsworthy is taken out of our hands. The affair claim was just such a case.

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Gov. Kristi Noem speaks to the media with Custer State Park Manager Matt Snyder, left, during the 56th annual Custer State Park buffalo roundup on Friday morning, Sept. 24, 2021. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)
Matt Gade
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Rumors are not news. They're rumors. My job as a journalist is to sort fiction from fact, and in the case of possible newsworthy rumors, check to see if they're one or the other.

So how could rumors become news without additional evidence, especially something as salacious as an alleged affair between South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Corey Lewandowski , a Trump world mover and shaker and Noem's informal adviser?

This was an extraordinary case, but in the end, it wasn't hard to hit publish. Sometimes the decision about what's newsworthy is taken out of our hands. The Noem-Lewandowksi affair claim was just such a case.

While I was busy deliberating how poorly sourced the rumors were, Noem made the news coverage decision herself by tweeting out a statement regarding the rumors. Her public statement made the matter news.

Some quick background: I'm the South Dakota state news director for Forum News Service, part of Forum Communications Co. That means when it comes to deciding what and what not to cover in South Dakota for my company, the buck stops with me.

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I had heard the Noem-Lewandowski affair rumors before. South Dakota politics is a tiny, gossipy world of its own, in a small state. I hear a lot of rumors I don't report. All journalists do.

I had checked out those affair rumors as best as I could, and couldn't verify them. So I didn't publish anything about them. That's how professional journalism standards work. Then came Wednesday, Sept. 29.

I'm focusing on this specific decision, but like any editor, it's one of dozens of news decisions I make every day. Here's how I made the decision I did.

Consider the source

The Noem-Lewandowski affair topic was whipping around conservative social media that Wednesday.

The first question I ask myself in this type of situation: Was there a clear source of these rumors? I started looking online to check it out.

Now, I don't get to choose what you consider "news." Unlike in the past, when you got most of your news from your local television or newspaper, you now get your information from many places online, including via social media and no-name websites. We no longer live in a closed media ecosystem.

But I do get to decide what news my company publishes from South Dakota.

In this case, the source of the affair rumors online was a post on a conservative website that I had never heard of before named "American Greatness."

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From a quick review, it looked to be a site that published opinion pieces, not news. Its writers have a history of skewering Republicans, including Noem, who they don't consider conservative enough.

A no-name opinion site with an ax to grind? That's not a trustworthy news source.

Chose who to trust

Then there were the unnamed sources. The "American Greatness" claim entirely relied on them.

I don't like unnamed sources. Reporting is always stronger and more trustworthy when it is based on named sources, and most reputable news organizations have strict standards regarding the use of unnamed sources.

A site like "American Greatness" doesn't necessarily maintain such standards.

If a professional news organization publishing information from an unnamed source has a long track record of getting it right, and has a lot to lose if it gets something wrong, I'm more apt to trust it, and repeat its reporting.

I may even trust reporting from less well-known news outlets depending on what clear evidence they have. If they have named sources or provide documents to back up their claims, that gives me a lot more confidence in repeating what they report, too.

"American Greatness" didn't have a solid track record of reputable news reporting, named sources or documentation. Again, that's not a reliable news source.

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Adjust when things change

Remember how I said we no longer live in a closed media ecosystem? There's another key part to that.

Unlike in the past, famous people and politicians can bypass journalists and speak out directly to the public through social media. Those messages count as public statements. They matter.

That Wednesday afternoon, Noem tweeted out a message about the rumors. She denied them, and called them garbage and lies.

That fundamentally changed the news coverage calculus. Noem had chosen to go to the public to deny the affair. She was on the record. Reporting her denial meant we also had to explain what she was denying.

In the end, it was a relatively simple news decision: If Noem hadn't gone on the record denying those rumors, we wouldn't have reported it. But once she did, we did.

Now, it was news.


Jeremy Fugleberg is the South Dakota state news director and health correspondent for Forum News Service. He is a member of the FCC Editorial Advisory board. He can be reached via email at jfugleberg@forumcomm.com or on Twitter: @jayfug

Jeremy Fugleberg is an editor who manages coverage of health (NewsMD), history and true crime (The Vault) for Forum News Service, the regional wire service of Forum Communications Co, and is a member of the company's Editorial Advisory Board.
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