Getting the story wrong… again.

CBS’ John Miller was one of two reporters today who botched the identity of the person apparently responsible for killing at least a dozen people at the Navy Yard in Washington today.

The gunman carried the ID of another man and Miller, along with an NBC news reporter, didn’t wait for authorities to identify the suspect. Instead, he opted to report it. He was wrong, and had to retract his scoop and write a tortured excuse:

This changes a lot. It means the identity they believed they had of the gunman is wrong. It means that the possible motive — troubles the man was having with the Navy and with family — is not the motive.

And it means the rush to get the story first falsely implicated an apparently innocent man, although Miller didn’t go that far.

But he’s gone this far before.

He was one of the people responsible for the claim that a Saudi national, seen running away from the bombs at the Boston Marathon finish line, was being hunted by police.

From appearance, we will simply have to accept that reporters are going to pass along information that’s wrong when there’s breaking news, rather than get it confirmed first.

Slate’s Will Oremus says the fog of breaking news creates the opportunity to getting the story wrong.

“But there’s a difference between saying, ‘we’re hearing that there may have been more than one shooter,’ and saying, ‘we’re hearing that the shooter’s name was X.’ The difference is that the former can be walked back without leaving anyone’s life ruined in its wake,” Oremus wrote this afternoon.

  • davidz

    This is a great example of why I’m not a news reader via Twitter. There was not a thing about this story that I needed to know in short tiny bursts. I’m a thousand miles away, so there was not “need to know” in the emergency. I like my information distilled into news, rather than flung at me as raw data.

  • John

    Maybe Bob can comment on this –

    Since most news organizations exist as for profit companies, are there rewards for getting out the raw information so quickly? Does viewership dramatically increase for the network that gets the story (wrong or right) out first, and thus the income of the network goes up? (My money will go to the organization that gets it right and takes a bit more time to get there, but perhaps my nature is not representative of the herd as a whole.)

    My experience with major “as it happens” news has been that all the networks are more or less interchangeable. I can flip between any of the four/five major TV news providers and see the same talking points and lines repeated ad nauseum, sometimes with a slight spin toward that network’s bias (notably – Fox spins right and CNN spins left in general – ABC, NBC and CBS seem to wander closer to the middle).

    Conversely, will there be any punishment (fiscal or otherwise) for the people/networks who reported it wrong? Is there potential for a winnable libel suit from the person incorrectly named as the shooter?

    • Bob Collins

      Let me be clear on this: When most people say “we’d rather wait and have it be right,” they’re pretty much lying. What they want is it right NOW and right, which is also what most journalists want.

      But people abandoned the system that generally insured that, the newspaper the next day and they want their news now. But any assertion by people that they’re willing to wait is pure fantasy; they’re not willing to wait.

      • John

        Fair enough – like I said, I’m relatively sure that I’m in the minority in my willingness to wait. In my world, getting answers in one day is practically a miracle. Getting them in a week (often to questions with significant financial implications to my customers) is relatively normal, and when it’s a tough enough question getting answers a month or so from now is just a fact of life. (It took me 6 years to figure something out once – but that’s the nature of academic research).

        So, for me to have to wait a day or two for accuracy in reporting is really not an inconvenience. My entire career and reputation as a scientist are 100% dependent on the integrity of my data – apparently that isn’t true of those who bring the rest of the world to me?

      • davidz

        I’m with John — I assert that I’m not like most people. I *am* willing to wait. I do read the paper the next day, but I also read the web sites today. I’m even known to reload a page to see what’s changed.

        I want it right, now. I’m willing to concede on “now”, because I understand that getting things right takes time. That’s much more important to me than “right now”.

        My choice to forego Twitter for news consumption aligns with my preference for “right”.

  • MrE85

    May the ghosts of Murrow and Cronkite appear by Miller’s bed. With axe handles…