ABC's Brian Ross and a press that disregards reputations of those it covers

Journalistic mistakes are easy to make in the immediate wake of events like the horrific shootings last week in a movie theater in Colorado.

Bits and bites of information explode across myriad media. Meanwhile, revulsion at the violence mixes with adrenaline, leaving some reporters at less then their intellectual and emotional best – especially when they are on live TV.

Still, that’s still no excuse for what happened with ABC News veteran Brian Ross Friday morning on “Good Morning America.” There’s a journalistic lesson to be learned – and it’s not as simple as all of us in the media are too obsessed with trying to be first.

We should have learned that two weeks ago from the sins of CNN and Fox in getting the first reports of the Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare wrong. Or maybe, if we had been listening to Aaron Sorkin and watching his HBO drama “The Newsroom,” we would have learned it last Sunday from a compelling episode that revisited the way NPR and others stupidly rushed to report that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was dead – when she was not.

But the stampede to speed is only part of the problem. I believe the media malfeasance also includes a disregard for the reputations of the people on whom we report. To me, that is the mortal sin. We in the mass media have tremendous power to harm reputations if we are not careful – and we seem to be getting less and less careful until it must look to the public as if we couldn’t care less.

Ross incorrectly – some say recklessly – linked the gunman who slaughtered theatergoers at a midnight premiere of the new “Batman” movie to the Tea Party.

Ross, ABC News’ chief investigative reporter, told viewers that there’s “a Jim Holmes, of Aurora, Colorado, page on the Colorado Tea Party site.” Furthermore, he added that it includes him “talking about joining the Tea Party last year.”

Ross did qualify the report saying, “Now, we don't know if this is the same Jim Holmes, but it is Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado.”

So, why put it out there in the first place, if you don’t have it nailed down? And in this case, it was indeed the wrong Jim Holmes -- and Ross and ABC had to publish a correction and apology.

“An earlier report that I had was incorrect that he was connected with the Tea Party,” Ross later told viewers. “In fact, that’s a different Jim Holmes. He was not connected to the Tea Party,” Ross said.

ABC later added a statement saying: “An earlier ABC News broadcast report suggested that a Jim Holmes of a Colorado Tea Party organization might be the suspect, but that report was incorrect. ABC News and Brian Ross apologize for the mistake, and for disseminating that information before it was properly vetted.”

To it’s credit, ABC News dealt with it squarely and didn’t try to look for wiggle room. But that doesn’t mean we should turn the page and ignore the damage such mistakes do the relationship between the media and their audiences.

Bob Smith, a Sun reader from Ellicott City, voiced the anger he felt in a series of emails to me Friday.

“I’m infuriated by Brian Ross’ (and ABC News’) false insinuation this morning that the murderer at last night’s ‘Batman’ screening was affiliated with the Tea Party,” Smith wrote.

“It would have taken 10 seconds on to find out that there are four different James Holmes living in Aurora, Colorado,” he continued. “Part of my concern is the recklessness of the reporting, which in an attempt to get information out as quickly as possible, fact checking is totally ignored, and people’s reputations get destroyed.”

Smith acknowledged the apology from ABC News and Ross, but felt it wasn’t enough.

“Several million people saw Brian’s initial statement this morning, but how many saw the retraction and apology?” he countered. “I can’t explain how outraged I am by this ‘reporting’, but what can you do? They issue a quick apology, no one in the media faces any consequences, and they go back to doing what they always do.”

Philip Seib, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern Californa, was one of the first to explore some of the ways instant information dissemination could change journalism for the worst in his 2000 book “Going Live: Getting the News Right in Real-Time, Online World.”

Seib says it’s not that journalists necessarily disregard the reputations of the people on whom they report any more than previous generations, it’s more a matter of not having time to think or worry about the damage they might be doing to other human beings by printing information that was not verified – and turns out to be harmful and false.

“It’s related to the new standards that are part of high-speed journalism where there is simply not much thought given to peoples’ reputations,” Seib said in a telephone interview. “The emphasis is on speed above everything else. We saw it not just in this case with Ross, but the case a couple of weeks ago with two networks getting the Supreme Court decision on healthcare wrong. Traditional journalistic values are being trampled as part of the stampede to get things faster and faster above all else.”

Seib, director of the Center of Public Diplomacy at USC, describes that state of affairs as “very sad,” and says it needs to be explored as a cultural problem.

“First of all, what we are talking about is a culture of high speed information dissemination – I wouldn’t even call it journalism necessarily. Everybody is tweeting about this, or putting something up on Facebook about that. And so many of them are not traditional journalists. So these citizens, who might be more interested in gossip than anything else, are sort of reshaping the standards of information dissemination, and that’s pretty scary.”

As for ABC News and Ross Friday: “There’s just no excuse for that,” Seib says. “Why did that have to be put on the air before it was checked out?”

Why, indeed?

ABC News declined comment Friday beyond the statement of correction and apology.


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