Reports claiming to know motive complicate, confuse Columbia mall coverage

Another shocking crime, another case of media adding confusion rather than clarity to the coverage.

That's one of the key story lines so far in terms of coverage of the shooting at the Mall in Columbia that left three dead Saturday.


As police continued to say after more than four days of investigation that they could find no relationship between the gunman and the victims, two tweets published Saturday that said without qualification that there was a relationship demand scrutiny, as do statements made on air at WBAL.

The first published shortly after noon Saturday came from the NBC-owned and -operated station in Washington, News4 Washington.


It said: "@NBCNews' Pete Williams confirms Columbia mall shooting was a domestic situation, not random."

If the time stamp on the tweet is correct, it came at 12:03 p.m. Saturday, which would put it about 48 minutes after the shooting took place, according to the police timeline.

That is pretty remarkable -- Williams, NBC's Justice Department correspondent in Washington, confirming 48 minutes after the crime took place what the police say they still have not confirmed four days later.

But here's something even more confusing and/or remarkable: NBC News says Williams never confirmed anything publicly.

Here's the statement sent to The Sun this week by NBC News: "A NBC spokesperson confirmed that Pete Williams never publicly reported the Maryland shooting was a domestic situation."

And here's something perhaps even more remarkable yet given that statement from NBC News, a tweet from the verified account of NBC Nightly News, the network's evening newsscast, that says: "Latest: Shooting at mall in Columbia, Maryland was a domestic situation, federal law enforcement official tells NBC News - @PeteWilliamsNBC."

This tweet is timestamped 3:07 p.m. Saturday.

Saying Pete Williams "confirms" that it was a "domestic situation" in the tweet from the NBC-owned station carries considerable authority given that Williams was the star reporter on the Boston bombings insisting at first that there was no arrest while CNN's John King and others, citing law enforcement sources, got it wrong and said there was. Columbia Journalism Review hailed his "accurate ... ahead of the pack" reporting.


Here's another tweet that has added to confusion in local coverage. It comes from WBAL-AM radio reporter/anchor John Patti, who was reporting for both WBAL radio and TV Saturday that the crime was domestic.

His tweet is time stamped 4:22 p.m. Saturday. It says: "Columbia Mall shooting domestic. Former boyfriend of  Zumiez clerk shot her and her new boyfriend also an employee of store".

At about the same time Saturday, Patti also reported that information on WBAL-TV.

"I found out through my sources," he told anchors Deborah Weiner and Jason Newton, "that this is indeed a domestic incident. I found out that we're dealing with the former boyfriend of a clerk at the store who is engaged to another clerk at the store. So, if you follow this with me, it's a former boyfriend/girlfriend who broke up. The girl is now engaged to be married to a new boyfriend who also works at Zumiez. The former boyfriend went into the store with the gun today, took their lives, and then his own life."

No one else that I know of offered the "former boyfriend/girlfriend" narrative for motive -- and certainly not that kind of detail.

In response to questions about Patti's reports, WBAL News Director Michelle Butt sent the following email response this week to The Sun:


"In situations like the Mall shooting, source relationships are everything," she wrote. "Veteran reporters like John Patti don't go on air or into the digital space unless the source has merit. We felt we had enough credible source information to report what John's sources were telling him. At that point, police were investigating a domestic relationship and as of now police have not yet established motive or determined whether the victims knew the gunman. While everyone continues to speculate over motive, we continue to talk with sources and work the story."

CNN also raised the possibility that the shooting was "domestic" but attributed the motive to federal law-enforcement sources and contextualized it as a possibility -- not a "confirmed" fact.

The role that social media "reporting" plays in shredding traditional standards of verified journalism and confusing the public about what is and is not truly confirmed has been much debated in recent months among news professionals. But the issues connected with such tweets -- and sometimes the on-air reports that accompany them -- matter on a personal level as well to all citizens, especially when it comes to families of victims.

Bill McMahon, the Howard County police chief in charge of investigating the killings, took to the radio airwaves Monday to try and deal with the confusion generated by such tweets.

Speaking of the families of the two victims, he told Ed Norris and Steve Davis, on 105.7 The Fan, "The families are very frustrated and beyond about that constant speculation about some relationship [between the killer and the victims]… As of now, there is no relationship, and it's very unfair to the families to be speculating about that."

Howard County Police this week have primarily used Twitter to convey information on the investigation. In their Twitter feed, they also indicated that they had not found evidence of a relationship.


"Shooter's handwritten journal offers no insight into whether he knew the victims. Police still accessing electronics, computer & cell phone," police wrote Tuesday afternoon. From another Tweet: "Police have learned Aguilar frequented , would hang outside and smoke in small groups. Unknown if he'd been in Zumiez before."

Earlier: # continuing to analyze Aguilar's cell phone, which was found on his body, & computer from his home. So far no new info discovered."

As I said Saturday in my first post on media coverage of the shooting: "If it turns out not to be domestic, WBAL in particular is going to be in for some harsh criticism as it went further... on Twitter in saying the shootings were not random." All the good work WBAL did in the inititial coverage Saturday in Columbia will be overshadowed by that tweet and Patti's on-air reports about it being "domestic."

But it's too early to go there. As I said, at this point, the tweets and the reports bear scrutiny -- not condemnation.

It could turn out, and this is crucial to remember, that Patti has it right in his tweet. It could turn out – whatever that News 4Washington tweet is based on – that it also had it right about the shooting being "domestic," not random.

There is still the matter of how the tweet about Williams got out there on Twitter if the statement that NBC News gave me Monday night is accurate.

I have followed up to NBC News with questions about the NBC News email language that said Williams "never confirmed anything publicly."


Did he confirm it privately for NBC's owned Washington station or for affiliates like WBAL via email, phone or face to face? I have asked.

I have yet to receive an answer. I also asked why Williams can't get on the phone for 10 minutes and answer my questions given the potential damage that could be done to his reputation by someone saying he confirmed something if he didn't. Does a reporter really need a publicist to deal with another reporter's simple questions of fact?

Stay tuned. I'll keep reporting this story whichever way it goes. And I'll do it by the careful journalistic standards of the Baltimore Sun – not Twitter talk.