Utility hoax is further proof that good journalism trumps social media

Thomas Sellers Jr.
Thomas Sellers Jr.

The hoax heard around the world … well, at least Memphis has shone a spotlight on a few issues.

The one that jumps out to me personally is the need for good journalists, journalism and trustworthy outlets. On the morning of July 8, word spread quickly via social media that former Memphis Grizzlies player Zach “ZBo” Randolph was once again displaying his generosity by giving $1 million to MLG&W to pay various electric bills of residents.

In the past, ZBo has donated $20,000 annually to the power company to help assist those in need during the winter months. So, we were to believe this time Randolph ponied up a million to help. Maybe it was a farewell gift to the city he spent nearly a decade in before he heads off to Sacramento to join the Kings.

With social media running a realistic-looking story, the trap was set for those who were seeking a blessing, some assistance or even a break. The next domino to fall was people spreading the news.

Social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram gave this rumor strength and legitimacy.

Thousands came out and stood in long lines waiting at kiosks to get Randolph’s gift of paying their utility bills. Gas stations transformed into parking lots. If you needed gas that Saturday morning, too bad.

The early morning heat didn’t matter to those who wanted to pay just one percent of their bill to eliminate the entire cost. Now when I heard you had to pay any portion of the bill, my alarms went off.

If you have to pay, it’s time to go the other way.

Now I’m blessed to be in this position. Over the years, the Memphis Grizzlies and MLG&W would provide press releases about ZBo giving to the needy. Then media sources would verify the information for public consumption.

Saturday, there was no filter for the public. Many Memphians were already in line before Randolph or MLG&W could respond or give confirmation to any donation.

“That rumor on social media was completely false,” MLGW president Jerry Collins said at his press conference later that afternoon.

Then ZBo took to that very social media platform to address the development.

“The rumor about me donating 1 million dollars to MLGW is FALSE,” he posted on Twitter. “However I will make my annual $20,000 contribution to MIFA/MLG&W in the fall.”

Social media has many usages like showcasing achievements, connecting with family and friends, keeping up with love ones miles away and shining a spotlight on those deserving for their generosity.

But let’s not hide the dangers of social media. In this me-first, selfie-loving age, the platform has become a source of mayhem and distraction. People “go live” with criminal activity and post their ignorant agendas.

In addition to racial and terroristic theories having a fertile field for seeds, other plants of evil have grown, like cyberbullying, body shaming and money-making schemes.

Social media has its place to benefit society. But it needs policing and filters. And that’s where media comes in. There are still some good journalists out there providing “real news.”

The public’s actions have shown that most people feel they don’t need newspapers, news broadcasts and informative magazines. Society today doesn’t read. They want to look at video post and memes. People need a soundbite instead of research.

Instead of entertaining both sides of the story, people are in such a hurry that one brief view of a situation will do.

There is no time for studying and getting the full details. We must jump up and get in line for the ZBo donation. Or we must be the first to spread the word if some celebrity has passed away.

Don’t jump out of your car to help your fellow man who just suffered a wreck. The thing to do is get your phone out and go live as the SUV is in flames so that you can go viral.

Instead of allowing professionals to cover the news, trained photographers to capture the images or photojournalists to provide the moving images, Joe Citizen runs to do it in hopes of reaping some amount of Internet fame.

Journalists who chose this profession have a passion for the job. We want to provide truthful information to the public to enrich it. We have a code of ehics that the vast majority of us live up to daily.

A trained journalist knows how to use social media for good in order to have a positive impact on the community he or she serves. A good journalist knows that the first post, the cell phone footage and the picture are just a part of the entire story.

It took a rumor, glitch or hacking to spark a fire of chaos as hot as a July day in Memphis. And it took good journalism from the four news stations, local papers and journalists on speed dial to prevent it from being worse.

If you read this column all the way through, most likely you weren’t in that line last weekend. You still know where good information can be found. And I’m asking you to join forces with us journalists in spreading this news that we still have a need for the professional written word of information.

THOMAS SELLERS JR. is the editor of the Millington Star. He can be reached at thomas.sellers@journalinc.com.