I confess a journalistic sin

I just got off the phone with Bob Garfield of On the Media talking about the shooting in Connecticut and the discussion that ensued on Twitter around an account alleged to be that of the shooter. He called me because I screwed up — and particularly because I am a journalist and journalism professor who screwed up.

After the shooting, I followed the trail of many on Twitter to an account that was written by a person of the same name that had been broadcast on TV news as that of the shooter. It was eerie reading and I said just that. I did not use the name of the person or the name of the account because I knew better: these facts could change. But then I also foolishly did not include a conditional statement in my tweet: I did not say “if this is the account of the killer, then…” Or I did not say this was the “alleged” or “reputed” account of the person named as the killer. These are basic, basic journalistic skills drilled until they are reflexes and I would use them in any story for print. I didn’t use them online. That was wrong. We don’t learn these things as journalists just to cover ourselves or to sound like journalists. We learn them because the key skill of the journalist is to say what we do *not* know and to make that clear. That is the essence of credibility.

I immediately tweeted that I should have added the conditional statement. I then erased the single tweet, which I hate doing because one should not try to eliminate the record. But on Twitter, there is no way to amend or correct a tweet — a fundamental structural problem, I think, but I’m not shifting blame to Twitter — and so it could continue to be retweeted and passed around.

As you know by now, it soon was reported that the original name was wrong. A person by that name was being questioned and his brother was identified in the press as the killer. Though as I write this, the police have still not verified either. So caveats still apply. And I am not using the names still.

Also, as this proceeded, the Twitter account associated with the first name got new tweets. That is apparent evidence that it was the wrong account. But even that is not foolproof as one can send delayed tweets. So nothing is certain. That is the important lesson.

Bob Garfield wanted me to shrug and say oops — such is news. I wouldn’t do that. Yes, this is news and we’ve all — not just journalists but also everyone who ever watches a breaking story on TV and now on the net — learned that facts change. But it was wrong. Bob also wanted me to blame haste. But I wouldn’t do that, either, for by that argument, one would need to wait hours, days, weeks, or even longer before reporting any facts and clearly that’s not going to happen.

No, we always need to be as diligent as possible about verifying facts — and listening to TV news, I’ve learned, is not sufficient. That includes now not just journalists but those who spread what they hear from journalists via Twitter, Facebook, et al. We need to be careful about saying what we don’t know or how we know what we’re saying. Those attributions and caveats are important. I left them out of my tweet. That was wrong, especially for me. I am sharing this here both to share the lesson. I’m sorry.

: LATER: Looking at Twitter reaction, I want to be clear that I’m not blaming Twitter’s length; I could have fit an attribution and caveat in the tweet.

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  • randomcommenter

    It’s not clear what your original tweet said. I came here via a link suggesting you’d tweeted that the (reported) killer’s account contained a “frightening set of warnings.” If this is correct, then you’ve done more than simply failed to verify facts, you’ve also inferred that an (innocent) tweeter had effectively signaled that he was a potential mass murderer.

    Perhaps the link that brought me here was wrong, but it would be easier to make sense of things if you had been stated the content of your deleted tweet.

  • hank m.

    “It was eerie reading and I said just that.” Well, not exactly just that.

    What you wrote was: “The killer’s twitter account is a frightening set of warnings.”

    Even adding “alleged” or “reputed” (alleged where? reputed by whom?) leaves hanging the suggestion that you have some special insight into the psyche of whoever did post the material in question, and that some sort of danger could—and perhaps should—have been foreseen.

    Sleep well.

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  • jerry

    dumbass

  • JournalisticLol

    Delete, delete, delete. Diversion. There’s no sin in that.

  • http://leatherpenguin.com/ TC_LeatherPenguin

    I’ll give you points–a scant few–for ‘fessing up to violating one of the basic tenets that should be taught in Journo 101: “Don’t write what you can’t back up.” But I guess folks who take on the imprimatur of “journalist” instead of the blue collar “reporter” monicker answer to a higher authority, as shown by the headline flying over Wired’s member of Ezra Klein’s Juicebox Mafia’s entry into how the media acted like fools in their haste to “report” on this tragedy: “Internet Identifies, Threatens Wrong Man as Newtown Shooter.”

    No, the “internet” did no such thing. Like you, anxious hacks leapt to conclusions based on the most tremulous of evidence, and used notoriously credulous “sources” to back up their professional malfeasance.

  • turdley

    Reading through your tweets it’s clear you aren’t just an idiot fuckup, but a self-righteous dickhead to boot.

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  • JR

    Can you please answer and report on how and why so many early news reports were so filled with errors? Or did the truth change…?

    1. Every report about the shooting on the day it happened reported that the .223 Bushmaster rifle was found in the back of the shooter’s car. Then we learned that it was the same rifle used in the shootings(?) If the rifle was used in the shootings, where did the report about it being found in the back of the car come from??

    2. There were many news reports a guy in camouflage pants was detained at the school right after the shooting. What happened to him?

    3. There were reports in quite a bit of detail of some kind of altercation between the shooter and school staff a few days before the shooting. Did this altercation occur?

    4. Why were there so many reports that the shooter’s mother was a teacher at the school?

    5. Why did all the first day reports say the shooter was let into the school building?

    And the biggest question of all – why does the “news media” report so many things they don’t know to be true???

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  • http://www.rightdenizen.com Nitsedy

    “A journalistic sin”? I think what you did was a bit more than a dangling participle or a mis-attributed quote.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gdkemble Greg Kemble

    Jeff, I just heard the interview and I thought it was great. My only concern is that I’m less convinced that journalists really do (as you said) make an effort to get their facts right. Good ones do, of course, but I think there is too much focus on haste. And I don’t think the alternative is either rush to get it wrong v. wait days/weeks before reporting. Maybe “hours” shouldn’t be seen as being such a problem…

    Nonetheless, I loved your response, your accepting responsibility, and your refusal to fall into abject cynicism.

  • john cunningham

    you commie “journalists” are too busy spreading the party line to bother with petty things like fact checking, two sources, or the like. too important by far to confiscate guns from the yokels in preparation for filling the gulags, eh, comrade?