‘Fake news’ seized an Idaho city. A local paper ‘jumped right into the coverage’

The Perrine Bridge over Snake River Canyon in Twin Falls, Idaho. Frank Kovalchek, via Wikimedia Commons

ON JUNE 2, 2016, reporter Alex Riggins was seven months into a new job at the Twin Falls Times-News, a daily newspaper in Twin Falls, Idaho, when he heard a call go out over the scanner. It was the city’s dispatch office calling for police to respond to the report of a sexual assault involving minors at the Fawnbrook Apartments. As the newspaper’s crime and breaking news reporter, Riggins was responsible for monitoring the scanner and deciding whether to investigate.

“It didn’t strike me as the kind of scoop I needed to rush out and get,” Riggins says. “It takes time for police to investigate a sexual assault. And with minors involved, the court was probably going to seal the case, anyway.”

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Three boys, ages  7, 10 and 14, were eventually charged in the case for sexually assaulting a five-year-old girl in the laundry room of the Fawnbrook Apartments. In lieu of a journalistically sound news story—with fact-based reporting, corroborated evidence, and an equal balance of perspectives from both sides—an error-filled account was posted on the conspiracy websites Creeping Shariah and Jihad Watch, and on ultra-conservative websites like Infowars and World Net Daily. These accounts alleged that the perpetrators were Syrian refugees, that they had gang raped the little girl at knife point, and that one of their fathers had been seen giving the youth high-fives after the incident.

The Fawnbrook case, as the incident is known, has been the subject of national media attention ever since. It’s led reporters from a wide range of news sources—Slate, Jezebel, NBC, Fox, and more—to look at Twin Falls as a microcosm of America in the age of “fake news.” From that broad spectrum of reporting emerges a portrayal of the Times-News as a beleaguered local newspaper, as if such a thing could be ordered by Central Casting.

But a closer look shows a surprisingly nimble newsroom that quickly found its footing after having been caught off guard by a “fake news” story. The newspaper’s journalists doggedly reported the facts of the case while the editor used the opinion section to foster a dialogue with its readers.

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Two weeks after hearing the call go out over the scanner, Riggins was sitting at his desk when fellow Times-News reporter Nathan Brown asked if he’d seen the story about Twin Falls posted on The Drudge Report. The headline read “REPORT: Syrian ‘Refugees’ Rape Little Girl at Knifepoint in Idaho…” and included a link to the story on Infowars. The article described an alleged rape of a minor in salacious detail and, in an implied rebuke of the Times-News, criticized the local media for not reporting on the story.

“It was obvious people were going to latch onto this story,” Riggins says, “especially people connected to the anti-refugee movement. We jumped right into the coverage.”

 

In San Diego, anyone in the police department will give me a statement, but in Twin Falls, officers and deputies are trained not to talk to the press.

 

THE TIMES-NEWS DESCRIBES ITSELF as a “mid-size paper that punches above its weight.” In recent years, it’s delivered on that claim by breaking local news stories that have made regional and national headlines. Its reporting on the case of a black football player raped by three white teammates was cited by NPR and  The Washington Post. When stuntman Eddie Braun launched himself by rocket over the Snake River Canyon, in September 2016, reporting by the Times-News was picked up by national news outlets like NBC. And through an article sharing arrangement with the Idaho Statesman in Boise, Idaho, Times-News articles are broadcast across the region.

Like a lot of small newspapers, the Times-News owes some of its success to a knack for hiring ambitious young reporters fresh out of journalism school from around the country. In a recent job posting for a politics and justice reporter, the paper enticed candidates with affordable, small-town living, access to the great outdoors, and all the hard-hitting news stories they could handle.

“Are you our next gem?” it read. “This beat is never dull, and you’ll write about murder and mayhem while making time to follow the crime trends in our area and tackle your dream reporting projects.” In exchange, the newspaper offered something of a quid pro quo: “Former Times-News reporters have been promoted within Lee Enterprises and have also gone on to the Chicago Tribune, Seattle Times and the Associated Press, to name a few.”

In 2016, Riggins was the most recent recruit hoping the Times-News would be a career launching pad. His plan worked. After nearly two years in Twin Falls, Riggins returned to his hometown of San Diego, California, where he is a breaking news reporter for City News Service, a regional wire service in southern California. In retrospect, Riggins now sees that the public agencies of Twin Falls had an odd way of sharing information with the media that could make reporting difficult.

“In San Diego, anyone in the police department will give me a statement,” Riggins says, “but in Twin Falls, officers and deputies are trained not to talk to the press. So we knew we weren’t going to get anything from an officer who responded to the scene that night.”

ICYMI: The story the NYTimes, BuzzFeed didn’t want to publish

A workaround was to contact the county prosecutor, Grant Loebs, with whom Riggins had a working relationship. They had weekly meetings to discuss cases in the community. The Fawnbrook case was sealed, so Loebs couldn’t give details about the incident. But he was adamant about clarifying errors in the “fake news” story. The juveniles were from Iraq and Sudan, not Syria. They did not gang rape the girl. There was no knife. And a father was not present congratulating the boys. The details were corroborated by Twin Falls Police Chief Craig Kingsbury, who spoke before the city council. That night, the Times-News published its first story challenging the “false” news about the Fawnbrook case (“fake news” was not yet in the common vernacular), an article that has since been cited in almost every article about the Fawnbrook case.

Setting the record straight about falsehoods was one thing, but challenging the accusation of a cover up was another. Matt Christensen, editor of the Times-News, wrote an editorial aimed at being transparent with readers about how the newspaper reported the Fawnbrook case. It was met with skepticism, showing how deeply the “fake news” story had eroded some people’s trust in the newspaper. As one Twin Falls resident said at a city council meeting, “the media has swung far, far ‘left’ on this.”

In another editorial, “The Twin Falls I Know,” Christensen defended the city against the political activist Pamela Geller who seized on the Fawnbrook case as a talking point in her campaign against Muslims.

“Something terrible happened to that poor girl at the Fawnbrook Apartments,” Christensen wrote. “Scores of children in southern Idaho are molested or abused every year, and that’s heartbreaking. But Geller is using this one case to drive a sickening political agenda.”

The editorial drew a rebuttal from Geller, who called for people to “Boycott his rag of a newspaper.”

Caught in so much crossfire, the Times-News opened its newsroom to Caitlin Dickerson, an investigative reporter for The New York Times. Her story, “How Fake News Turned A Small Town Upside Down,” has become something of a final word on the Fawnbrook case. Alex Riggins’ name doesn’t appear in the story, although he was interviewed twice by Dickerson. Looking back, I asked him if he would choose to act differently on that June day when he heard the call go out over the scanner.

“If I had the superpower to know that, I would use it to go back and stop the sexual assault from happening in the first place.”

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Ryan Bell is a writer and photographer based in Seattle. In 2015-2016, he was a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow in Russia and Kazakhstan. His work has appeared in National Geographic, Bloomberg, Outside, and many other publications. Follow him on Instagram @ryantbell.