Be a smart consumer of news

Did a Santa Claus in Knoxville, Tenn., hold a terminally ill child who died in his arms as he made a Christmas wish or not?

Depends on who is asked.

The tale surfaced in a column by a newspaper writer in Knoxville who since has been unable to independently verify the story. But, by the time that became clear, the story had gone viral, thanks to social media denizens who are forever looking for heartwarming tales to spread like icing on a warm chocolate cake.

A TV station in Knoxville has claimed to have verified details with the Santa portrayer and his wife, who say the nurse who called for Santa Claus to come for the child’s last visit isn’t stepping forward to verify the story out of fear of losing her job.

All of that raises eyebrows. For one thing, we have to wonder about the efficacy of publishing a column without independent verification. Was it just too good a tale to pass up?

Unfortunately, in the good, old, pre-social media days, the story might have been the talk of Knoxville, obtained a pickup by a wire service, resulted in a retraction or a good chewing-out by an editor and moved into the forgotten news bin.

Nowadays, there is no room for error, and not just by reporters but by anyone sharing information via social networks.

One mistake, one error in judgment, is magnified a million times, makes its way around the world and is a sensation for its content and then for its demise. All of that happens in a split second, at the speed of electrons when a story is posted.

While we remain in doubt about just what happened in Knoxville, we use the tale as a caution for those who share news on social networks. Please be a wise consumer of news.

If the story is outlandish, do a search to see if there are other legitimate news sites picking it up. If it’s legit, chances are, more than one news organization has taken up the story. The potentially far-fetched, after all, fits classically into the definition of news. Man bites dog is better than dog bites man for drawing readers.

If the story is overly biased, be careful. If it is in perfect opposition to your worldview, the bias becomes obvious. But, if the tale fits perfectly with your worldview, there is bias, too, for there are two sides to every story and yours, unfortunately, probably isn’t the only one.

Yes, be careful of the site addresses as the fighters of the “fake news” syndrome have noted in recent days.

But mostly, just use your head. Really read a story before pressing “like” and “share.” Don’t become part of the viral problem.

And know that, even when the best sources use their best efforts, there can be errors of fact or errors of judgment. Legitimate sources will admit to those errors as soon as they’re brought to light.