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WBAL apologizes for reporting on Columbia Mall shooting

In the wake of Howard County Police saying definitively Wednesday that there was no "domestic" motive for the Columbia Mall shooting in January that left three people dead, WBAL apologized for its reporting on the story.

Most of that bad reporting came from John Patti, an anchor and reporter at WBAL Radio. His erroneous reports were also carried on WBAL-TV.

“Columbia Mall shooting domestic. Former boyfriend of Zumiez clerk shot her and new boyfriend also an employee of store," Patti tweeted on Jan. 25.

Patti reported more details of an alleged relationship on WBAL-TV, saying “this is indeed a domestic incident” and that the two victims were “engaged to be married.”

But none of it was true, according the report from the Howard County Police today.

"Police have confirmed that there was NO CONNECTION between the shooter, Darion Marcus Aguilar,19, and the two victims, Brianna Benlolo, 21 and Tyler Johnson, 25. Extensive searches of computers, cell phones and other records showed no indication that the shooter knew the victims or targeted them in any way," police said in statement that included the "NO CONNECTION" is capital letters.

"As the news unfolded the day of the shooting, WBAL reported that the victims, Brianna Benlolo and Tyler Johnson were involved in [a] personal relationship, and that this relationship was the reason Darion Aguilar may have carried out these crimes," Michelle Butt, WBAL news director, said in a statement posted online. "This information was based on sources connected to the case but has proven to be false. We regret the mistake and any additional hardship this may have brought to the Benlolo and Johnson families."

The statement appears on the WBAL radio website at the end of a story headlined, “Howard County Police Release Investigation Results of Columbia Mall Shooting.” The story is attributed to “Associated Press and WBAL Radio.”

The apology does not appear on the WBAL-TV website.

Butts explained by saying WBAL management thought the problem was with Patti's tweet, which reported the shooting as "domestic" without qualification.  Patti is identified on his twitter account as an employee of WBAL Radio. She said management feels his TV reports did not warrant such an apology, since he attributed what he was saying in them to sources.

"We said we would address it when the time came, and we have," Butt told The Sun on Wednesday, adding that station management was done talking about it. "We said we would address it and move on, and we are moving on."

When asked if Patti was or will be disciplined, she said the station does not discuss personnel matters.

NBC News was the other major news outlet reporting the shooting as "domestic" on Jan. 25.

As I wrote in a previous column on the mall shooting:

Shortly after noon on that day, 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.

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.

Four days after the shooting, an NBC News spokeswoman told me 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 the week after the shooting 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.

NBC News did not immediately respond Wednesday to my question as to whether it would correct or in any way revisit its reporting on the Columbia Mall shooting in light of the Howard County Police saying that the information reported by Williams was wrong.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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