This week's shooting at the DC Navy Yard was the latest in a long string of breaking news reporting to get many of the essential facts wrong.
In fact, the rampant misreporting that follows shootings like this is so predictable that OTM has unintentionally developed a formula for covering them. We look at how all the bad information came out. We suggest ways that the news media could better report breaking news. This time, we're doing something different.
This is our Breaking News Consumer's Handbook. Rather than counting on news outlets to get it right, we're looking at the other end. Below are some tips for how, in the wake of a big, tragic story, you can sort good information from bad. We've even made a handy, printable PDF that you can tape to your wall the next time you encounter a big news event.
1. In the immediate aftermath, news outlets will get it wrong.
Everyone we talked to made this point. Details on the ground will be sketchy, a shooter may still be active, all the dead may not be accounted for. "whatever you might hear in the first couple of hours after a major news event, you should probably take it all with a grain of salt," says Andy Carvin, senior strategist on NPR's Digital Desk. "It’s quite possible that what you hear as the news stories the next morning – what they focus on might be quite different than the day before."
2. Don't trust anonymous sources.
Often, news outlets will cite "sources," or a "law enforcement official." "I think you need to be very careful," says Ian Fisher, assistant managing editor for digital operations at the New York Times. "[law enforcement official] could be anything from the FBI to a cop in a car. So you just don’t know and you shouldn’t really trust that."
3. Don't trust stories that cite another news outlet as the source of the information.
"Also be wary of organizations that blindly quote other organizations without solid sourcing," says Fisher. "They aren’t taking a very big chance in doing that. They can always say 'oh, that was them, not us.' So I think that they are a lot less choosy and careful than they would be if their own reporting was attached to it."
4. There's almost never a second shooter.
In the case of the DC Navy Yard shooting, the Sandy Hook shooting, and many others, initial reports included possible second and third shooters. “There’s pretty much never another one,” says Fisher. “So if you hear that, you can almost always discount."
5. Pay attention to the language the media uses.
Whether you realize it or not, the language the media uses tells you how reliable it is. Here's a helpful glossary:
- "We are receiving reports" - sources are claiming something has happened, but it has not been confirmed.
- "We are seeking confirmation" - the news outlet is confident, but still can't confirm.
- "We can confirm" - information has come from multiple sources, and the news outlet feels confident that it can claim something as an actual fact.
- "We have learned" - how a news outlet declares it has a scoop. As Andy Carvin says "on the one hand, it could mean that they’re the first ones to confirm something. Or they’re going out on a limb and reporting something that no one else has felt comfortable reporting yet."
6. Look for news outlets close to the incident.
"What you want to do is ask yourself who is close enough to this situation," says Craig Silverman of Poynter's Regret the Error column. "In an incident of terrorism or shooting or even when it’s sort of weather focused in a specific area, that’s always your preferred source. Have they actually seen it with their own eyes? Are they actually there, and do they know the area? Really, really, important."
7. Compare multiple sources.
"If a news organization says 'we can confirm that such and such has happened,' pay attention to what the other networks are saying." says Andy Carvin. "Because ideally you can triangulate that information and get to some nugget of truth. But the fewer examples you have of entities claiming that something has happened, the more wary you should be about it."
8. Big news brings out the fakers. And Photoshoppers.
"There are lots of hoaxsters who know that in this moment people are just grabbing onto any images they can find," says Craig Silverman. "So they might Photoshop something and send it out. Or images that were taken previously find their way to be presented as if they're new. If it’s somebody who’s sharing a photo on twitter, it’s very possible that that photo isn’t one they actually took themselves. You also need to kind of triangulate and see, well, 'has anyone else shared that, and are they giving me a link that I can go to, to actually learn more about this?'"
9. Beware reflexive retweeting. Some of this is on you.
Thanks to Twitter and Facebook, you are a repeater and reporter of information, both good and bad. It is up to you to apply scrutiny to the information you encounter to avoid passing amplifying the same bad information you hope to filter out.
Click the image below for your own printable PDF of the Breaking News Consumer's Handbook.
MAN: Someone dressed in a black top, black jeans, what does that say, if anything, about a possible motive or, or whatever? Can we begin to draw any initial conclusions? And I want to alert our viewers, sometimes these initial conclusions can, obviously, be very, very wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The initial coverage of the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard Monday by contractor Aaron Alexis bore all the earmarks of classic reportage in the midst of these all too frequent horrors. It stunk.
CORRESPONDENT: We’re looking at a situation possibly involving multiple shooters here at the Washington Navy Yard.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wrong!
CORRESPONDENT: It’s believed that whoever this gunman is, a man in his fifties who – is carrying three weapons, a handgun, a shotgun and an assault rifle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wrong about his age, wrong about the assault rifle.
CORRESPONDENT: Earlier today, some media outlets were tweeting out that the shooter was a named Raleigh Chance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, that is dangerously wrong. Breaking news, whether of a violent storm or a vicious gunman, creates chaos and confusion. That’s a given. But what the news media do in the face of it, that’s a choice. And they pretty much make the same choice in every medium, on every platform, in every era.
CORRESPONDENT: Rumors ran rampant. At first step it was thought that Vice President Johnson had also been shot in the attack.
REBECCA GREENFIELD: During the JFK assassination, if you listened to the radio broadcasts, they sound as uncertain as Twitter reporters sound, when they’re reporting if he’s alive, if he’s dead.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rebecca Greenfield writes for The Atlantic Wire.
REBECCA GREENFIELD: A reporter in Dallas goes back and forth on it. At one point, they report that there were three shooters there. It goes all the way back to the reporting of the Titanic, even. There were false telegraphs saying that the Titanic hadn’t sunk and that it was on its way to Halifax safe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The new media environment means everyone gets to report or disseminate news of disaster. Some report well, some badly, but all are retweeted. So listen up, some of this is on you.
ANDY CARVIN: When a breaking news situation is happening, you really should pay attention to certain keywords that members of the media may use, because they mean very distinct things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Andy Carvin is the senior strategist on NPR's digital desk.
ANDY CARVIN: So, for example, if they say, we're receiving reports that XYZ has happened, that should suggest to you that some of their sources are claiming something but it's not necessarily confirmed, whereas if they then say, we can confirm that such and such has happened, that means that they feel that their sourcing is strong enough that they can go out on a limb and claim that this is an actual fact. And there are all sorts of words that they may use in between, such as, “It appears that such and such has happened,” so they’re feeling somewhat confident but they still haven’t necessarily confirmed it either.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about, “CNN has learned”?
ANDY CARVIN: One of the things that you will sometimes hear during breaking news is the phrase, “CNN has learned” or “”NPR has learned.” While it may not seem like a big deal, it’s their way of saying we have some sort of scoop. So, on the one hand, it could mean that they do have a scoop and they’re the first ones to confirm something, or they’re going out on a limb and reporting something that no one else has felt comfortable reporting yet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A shooting where NPR got it initially wrong was reporting that Congressperson Gabby Giffords had died.
NPR SPOKESWOMAN: In a fast-changing news situation, with conflicting reports, we should have been more cautious. NPR news apologizes to the family of Representative Giffords and to you, our listeners.
ANDY CARVIN: Which is why it's also important to listen to whether or not they're claiming what the source is. So, for example, if they say, “We’re receiving information from law enforcement sources or law enforcement officials,” if they’re not going on record with that law enforcement official’s name, then it’s still essentially speculation, whereas if they say, “Officer such and such, at a press conference five minutes ago, said XYZ,” that means the officials have gone on the record with their names and the information that they have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Unnamed sources led CNN up the path to
perdition, by wrongly claiming a suspect had been apprehended in the Boston Marathon bombing. And unnamed officials wrongly fingered Ryan Lanza, the actual shooter's brother as the gunman at Sandy Hook. But named officials maligned the citizens of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. In the first hours of mayhem coverage, trust no one. News consumers longing for certainty should just learn to live with the pain. As Carvin says, mark our words, meaning the media's words, and learn from experience, even if we don't.
IAN FISHER: First off, they should be wary about names that come out because often shooters are using different IDs or often the law enforcement officials are wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ian Fisher is Assistant Managing Editor for Digital Operations at the New York Times.
IAN FISHER: Be wary of organizations that blindly quote other organizations, without solid sourcing. They aren’t taking a very big chance in doing that. They can always say, oh, that was them, not us. Another thing is there’s almost never a second gunman.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's like House on the TV show, saying, “It’s never lupus.”
IAN FISHER: Right. It’s – [LAUGHS] it’s never lupus; there’s almost never another gunman.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Craig Silverman, author of the Poynter Institute’s Regret the Error blog, has just written a piece which he plans to run every time there's a crisis. It's called, “This is My Story About the Breaking News Errors That Just Happened.”
CRAIG SILVERMAN: And it just basically will fit pretty much any breaking news error situation in the future.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so what happens every single time?
CRAIG SILVERMAN: So, misidentification of people, usually of victims, of perpetrators - very consistent. We’ll often see mistaken numbers, in terms of the number of victims, in terms of the number of perpetrators and that kind of thing, as well. Sometimes location is incorrect, where something originated, where something is happening now, mistakes also related to images, so fake images that are portrayed as real or images that were taken previously and sort of find their way to be presented as if they’re new. So that's very consistent, as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you know, big news brings out the fakers.
CRAIG SILVERMAN: Absolutely. And this is a really important thing for both journalists and for people consuming media in these moments to realize, is that there are lots of hoaxers who know that in this moment people are just grabbing onto whatever image they can find. So they might Photoshop something and send it out. What we commonly see in, [LAUGHS] in weather situations is now what I call the street shark -
- where people – people will claim to see, in a flooded street or highway, a shark swimming.
So beware of street sharks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So who should we trust?
CRAIG SILVERMAN: Well, [LAUGHS] a little bit of no one and a little bit of everyone. People on the ground, that’s always your preferred source. Can - have they actually seen it with their own eyes, are they actually there and do they know the area - really, really important.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But not guaranteed. I'm tempted now to play another montage here, of bad reporting of the Boston Marathon bombing, the Sandy Hook shooting, the Oregon mall shooting, the Aurora, Colorado shooting, the Virginia Tech shooting and Columbine.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
But I won't, because the exercise would be more depressing than illustrative. Instead, we’ll put a chart on our website to post by your TV or radio or computer, to consult, when next confronted with a blood-saturated lead, because innocent people are shattered by guns but also by the buckshot of frenzied media, social media, included. Take note of the words: “We’re receiving reports, an unnamed official says, another news outlet reports, experts speculate,” and, of course, “second gunman.” Mostly, they’re just buckets of blather deployed to fill that aching void. So print out our little chart. And may you never need it. But you will.