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Reporting rumors

After news broke that a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives operation had gone south -- literally -- speculation emerged that Acting Director Kenneth Melson would be resigning over it.

Now the bureau's head spokesman is quashing the speculation. "Acting Director Kenneth Melson continues to be focused on leading ATF in its efforts to reduce violent crime and to stem the flow of firearms to criminals and criminal organizations," Scot Thomasson, the bureau's chief of public affairs, told Government Executive.

The speculation arose because an ATF operation dubbed "Fast and Furious" had funneled weapons into the hands of Mexican drug cartels, and one of the weapons was used to murder an ATF special agent.

The situation is a good example of a common cause for consternation in newsrooms. Clearly the ATF operation didn't work out as planned, with tragic consequences. The idea that Melson might resign over it was completely plausible. When news organizations hear rumors like that, they have to decide whether to report them or wait for something more definitive.

Federal Computer Week has not been covering this story closely because apart from the involvement an electronic tracking system, it lacks a strong IT angle. We did publish a brief aggregated item on June 20, but have otherwise left it alone. But we also often have cases where some ad hoc news judgemnt is called for. In particular, whenever a key figure in the federal IT scene leaves, such as Federal CIO Vivek Kundra, speculation abounds about the next person to take the office.

For now, it's purely guesswork as people float various names of people they think would be good or likely to get President Barack Obama's call. But a time will probably come when we will here that a specific person has been offered the post, or is in talks with the administration. At that time, lacking any official confirmation, we'll have to decide whether to report it as a rumor and risk being wrong, or wait for certainty and risk being beaten by a competitor.

So don't be too hard on those outlets that reported Melson's imminent resignation. It can be a tough call.

Posted on Jun 23, 2011 at 12:18 PM


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