Jussie Smollett story shows thin line between news and social media

"Empire" actor Jussie Smollett leaves Cook County jail following his release, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, in Chicago. Smollett was charged with disorderly conduct and filling a false police report when he said he was attacked in downtown Chicago by two men who hurled racist and anti-gay slurs and looped a rope around his neck, a police official said. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)

CHICAGO (AP) - The story Jussie Smollett told police had it all: racism, homophobia, politics, celebrity - all tied up with a hangman's noose. There was no question the news coverage was going to be massive.

In many ways, that coverage is an object lesson in the foibles of modern reporting. The story showed where news outlets teeter on the line between driving social media and being driven by it, between healthy skepticism and cautious credulity.

"We have the combination of social media and a polarized country converging here," said Charles Whitaker, interim dean of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Everyone is seeing events "from their political lens. No one is really good at distancing themselves."

The story began as an account of a hate crime that went viral instantly.