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Racing to Break Story of Navy Yard Shooting, Media Fumbles Facts

September 17, 2013

The news media got many facts wrong in the first few hours after yesterday’s shooting rampage at Washington’s Navy Yard, perhaps another sign of overreliance on police scanners and the perils of rushing to break news.

As The Washington Post writes today, initial reports indicated that as many as three gunmen were involved — a number that subsequent reports changed to two, then one, back to three, and eventually back to one. NBC and CBS identified a suspect by name, but it turned out that he wasn’t a suspect, after all. Other news outlets reported that police were responding to a second shooting at Bolling Air Force Base, but there was no shooting there.

In most cases, the erroneous information hopped from police scanners to Twitter to traditional media reports, all within minutes, the Post reports. “People on Twitter take it for granted that [scanner chatter] is real and confirmed,” says Mark E. Brady, public information officer for the Prince George’s County Fire Department. Reporting scanner data in the fog of breaking events “is asking for trouble,” he says.

With any big, breaking story, the initial confusion is amplified by today’s hypercompetitive news environment and by social-media tools that turn anyone with a Twitter account into a reporter. The news media’s standard operating procedure has become “report first, confirm second and correct third,” says veteran TV reporter Dave Statter. Journalists have forgotten “that what makes us special is our skill in confirming information, not just reporting it.” — Greg Beaubien


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