When ‘I Don’t Know’ Is the Story: Can Accuracy Win Out Over Speed?

I awoke early Monday morning to news reports of yet another mass shooting, this time at the Washington Navy Yard.  It was early moments in an unfolding story, but this is what we knew, the media said:  One shooter, and perhaps as many as three, armed with an AR-15, a rifle and a semi-automatic Glock, gained access to the Navy Yard. One person had been shot.  And then more than one. Ultimately 12 people shot and killed, others sent to hospital. And finally, the shooter, Aaron Alexis, was shot dead.  Police continued to search for an accomplice well into the evening before determining that Alexis acted alone.

Driving home at the end of the day, I heard an NPR reporter recapping the shooting, an event that has become so commonplace in America that I paid light attention to the story I’d heard ten hours earlier. Until I heard the reporter say, “armed with a shotgun.”  Wait.  A shotgun?  What happened to the AR-15 and all the extended reporting about this “favorite” weapon of maniac shooters?

In an active crime scene, facts are unclear.  The news unfolds.  Details fill in the picture, until finally there is clarity.

Yet we – the media and the media consumer – are not patient.  We can’t wait for facts.  We want the story. Now.

The always-on news business is happy to oblige.  They fill the airwaves, news blogs, and Twitter stream with the story.  Accuracy be damned.  A hospital medical officer told CNN that the weapon “had to be a semi-automatic because they’re talking about gunshots that they heard in rapid succession.”  Well then, if that assumption is good enough for her, it’s good enough for us. Let’s report it. Let’s get this story out. 

Other facts were misreported on Monday, and I applaud CNN.com for leaving its reporting timeline online, when it could just as easily have removed the errors in reporting from its site.

Leave it to faux-newsman Jon Stewart to dress down the news media’s “Wrongnado” of reporting, or as one local Fox news reporters dubbed it “experienced speculation.”   Stewart takes down the media’s banal coverage of a critical story, in a way that we ought to look at through more than his comic lens.   Of CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asking “can we begin to draw any initial conclusions, and I want to alert our viewers that sometimes these initial conclusions can obviously be very, very wrong,” Stewart shouts:  “Yes, yes, yes, correct. They can be very, very wrong.  So don’t say them out loud!”

No one wants to be schooled by a comedian, which makes Stewart’s report even harder to bear.  He strings together a montage of reporters telling their audiences the in an unfolding story, information can be wrong then going on to report more and potentially wrong information.   “I know you think that saying, “This could all be wrong,’ makes it okay to say it,” Stewart says, “but it doesn’t make it okay.”

I suppose these news organizations believe it is better to fill the airwaves with unconfirmed, at best, and completely wrong, at worst, reporting than to play re-runs of Leave It To Beaver while journalists go about the business of getting the story right. I suppose these news organizations credit their audiences with the ability to sort out the story.  I suppose these news organizations are arrogant enough to believe that their audiences stay glued to the source in order to catch every nuance of an unfolding story.

Stewart has another conclusion.  Such reporting is an abuse of trust.

In the race to make the story, compelled by the need to fill air time, accuracy – and thereby the credibility of the media agency, is often the loser.  It is fair to point out that CNN, among others, corrected itself in front page headlines like “Navy Yard Attack: What we Now Know.” Yet in the age of short attention span, media consumers can’t be depended upon to fact check the news they heard earlier in the day.  The shouldn’t have to.

No reporter is comfortable saying, “I don’t know.”  Still, sometimes “I don’t know” is the story.

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