What is the right mix of skepticism and credulity for a journalist in dealing with conspiracy theories?

I originally posted this at Reddit if you want to follow the discussion there:

My two favorite conspiracy theories of the day have made me think about an important question for journalists regarding credibility and the watchdog role:

There’s an official story for each of them, and then there are those who doubt the official story. When the doubters are right, that’s huge news. But on the other hand, most conspiracy theories are bunk, and a waste of a journalist’s time. How should a reporter balance those two opposing impulses?

As a journalism professor, I tend to teach a dictum I learned from an ex who was in medical school at the time. Doctors are taught to look at symptoms and assume that the most likely cause of those symptoms is the cause of those symptoms. As med school professors put it:

“When you hear hoofbeats, assume horses, not zebras.”

But zebras are bigger news.

How do we deal with this?

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