By the middle of last week, just four days after the shooting at The Mall in Columbia that left three people dead, some in TV news wanted to move on.
This was especially true at NBC, which was the first and most powerful voice to say that the killing of two workers at Zumiez and the suicide of the gunman who took their lives were the result of a “domestic situation.”
Shortly after noon on Jan. 25, less than an hour after the shooting took place, News4 Washington, the NBC-owned station in Washington, tweeted, “@NBCNews’ Pete Williams confirms Columbia Mall shooting was a domestic situation, not random.” Williams is the justice correspondent for NBC News in its Washington bureau.
WBAL, NBC’s Baltimore affiliate, upped the ante, with John Patti tweeting some four hours later: “Columbia Mall shooting domestic. Former boyfriend of Zumiez clerk shot her and new boyfriend also an employee of store.”
Patti, who is an anchor/reporter at WBAL radio, reported even more alleged details on WBAL-TV’s air, saying “this is indeed a domestic incident” and that the two victims were “engaged to be married.”
But by the end of last week, police were still saying they could find no evidence of a relationship between the gunman and his victims.
Given that disconnect, I say let’s not move on — at least, not yet.
With the caveat that police might yet find a relationship between killer and victims proving the tweets and on-air reports to be correct to some extent, I think the confusion generated by conflicting reports as to whether this was a domestic or random act matters. It’s what TV pundits themselves like to call a “teachable moment” — and, in this case, it comes from a big story that happened in our own backyard that put local media claims to the test.
The lesson we should have learned at least three years ago, but didn’t, is that we desperately need to figure out a way to control the power of new media technology before it shreds our standards of verification and, consequently, our credibility with the public. When credibility goes, your news organization is in big trouble.
We are in a period of profound transition, if not a revolution in media, and we cannot afford to keep confusing the public and/or getting it wrong at those key times when citizens come to us looking for trustworthy information. Not only will some news organizations wind up losing their audiences, in a larger sense, a democracy cannot function effectively without sources of reliable information.
I say the lessons should have been learned three years ago because in January 2011, National Public Radio tweeted that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was killed by a gunman in Tucson. Such mainstream news brands as Reuters and CNN reported it as well on Twitter. CNN’s tweet said it “confirms Gabrielle Giffords has died.”
While Giffords was seriously wounded, she was not dead. And she is still very much alive today, of course.
News providers vowed to learn from NPR’s rush to be first in social media on that story. But the TV outlets, at least, have learned very little, so far as I can tell.
Just short of a year later in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, CNN and Fox News were among the media outlets that identified Ryan Lanza as the killer of 20 children and 6 adults, when in fact his brother, Adam, was the gunman. Ryan’s Facebook picture instantly went global as the face of a mass murderer, and in some cases, it took hours before media outlets corrected their errors.
Multiple news outlets also got it wrong in saying the killer’s mother, Nancy, whom he also murdered, was a teacher at the school.
I was a guest on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” media review show two days after that horrible event and wound up in a heated discussion about such reckless, harmful and wrong media reports with Frank Sesno, former CNN Washington bureau chief, now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.
“Why is it so hard, as we’ve just seen with the brother being misidentified, to keep bad information off the air?” asked Howard Kurtz, the show’s host.
“It’s what I call the language of live,” Sesno said. “You are reporting something as it’s happening, and quite often you are following law enforcement or anyone else down the dead-end path of incorrect information. … Information, right or wrong, travels much faster than corroboration sometimes. … We call it ‘fog of war’ on the battlefield. … It’s fog of information.”
To me, Sesno sounded like someone who believes it is OK — if not inevitable — for live reporting to get some things wrong. And I was especially troubled to hear that from someone who is directing a school that is training a new generation of journalists.
I couldn’t disagree more with him. Information cannot do any traveling on your Twitter stream or website until you post it. Be a responsible media gatekeeper and don’t publish anything until it is truly verified, and you will keep bad information off your site.
It’s not a matter of some inevitable force making us behave this way. The problem is us. Use the new technology to better serve the public; don’t be used and abused by it to the point where the public is overwhelmed with bad information.
It’s not impossible. The Baltimore Sun held firm against saying it was “domestic” despite the mounting pressure.
The NBC tweet, saying Williams “confirmed” the shooting as a “domestic situation” a mere 48 minutes after the act, sparked and then drove what became in essence an echo chamber of false confirmation.
Social media aggregators like @breakingnews quickly propelled it further into the mediasphere by retweeting it around the world.
And by the time you got to Patti’s tweet with its specificity and lack of any qualification, it seemed like the shooting had been confirmed as a “domestic situation” by two mainstream news operations — one national, one local. And it was reported that way on scores of news sites from New York to London, often citing NBC and WBAL.
An NBC News spokeswoman told me Wednesday that Williams had moved on to other stories, and she seemed puzzled as to why I wanted to talk to him about that tweet and another from “NBC Nightly News” later in the day of the shooting that said, “Latest: Shooting at mall in Columbia, Maryland was a domestic situation, federal law enforcement official tells NBC News — @PeteWilliamsNBC.”
One reason I wanted to talk to Williams is that his name carries considerable authority in such situations, given that he was a star reporter on the Boston bombings for getting several key details right when other reporters like CNN’s John King were getting things wrong.
I wanted to talk to him because an NBC News spokeswoman sent me an email last week saying, “Pete Williams never publicly reported the Maryland shooting was a domestic situation.”
I was interested in how NBC News was parsing “never publicly reported” to make that claim in light of those two tweets with his name in them.
If someone at NBC Nightly News or the network-owned station in Washington was misrepresenting Williams’ reporting, I wanted to give him the chance to clear up the confusion and any damage it might do to his reputation.
I am interested in trying to clarify a situation in which many are still confused as to how NBC could have Williams confirming the shooting as domestic within an hour of its taking place — when the police said at the end of last week that they still have no evidence of a relationship between the killer and his victims.
Michelle Butt, WBAL’s news director, said Friday the station stands by what it has reported and that her newsroom is still working its sources and trying to report the story, as it had been doing all week.
Ditto for me on the media aspects of this story. With no apologies to NBC News, it’s way too early to move on if we don’t want to keep repeating the mistakes of the past.
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