No medium is better at generating urban legends than ‘roadside radio’, the fast-travelling gossip and anecdotes of street traders, taxi drivers and passengers, golf course caddies, people close to politicians and policemen, land brokers and patrons in bars and cafés. However, gossip and rumours can alert us to real trends and changes. The media is often accused of ‘agenda-setting’, or telling readers what they ought to be interested in, but rumour also sets its own agenda. Journalists have to keep their eyes open for clues to stories and their ears alert to the issues people are discussing. Is the disappearance of girls the result of trafficking? Have people begun abusing a new type of homebrew? Has a well-known businessman suddenly stopped spending money, or a top policeman begun socialising with the criminal elite? Roadside radio will tell you about all these developments, and many of the tales will be true. But journalists should ask themselves why people believe it. What does it tell about our times and our country? What have people gossiped about on Facebook?
The first step has to be to confirm the validity of the rumour. Always check with sources that are in a position to know. Then, check with the local police station about reports of missing girls and with doctors on cases of alcohol abuse. Ask employees of the businessman how his enterprise is doing and ask financial analysts about market trends. Look at whether these individuals have sold assets recently. Observe policeman at play. Only once a rumour has some substance, can the planning of the story begin.