More reporting on mass shooting fails under scrutiny

Not surprisingly, some of the reporting in the aftermath of the San Bernardino, Calif., shootings isn’t standing up to scrutiny.

The latest is the widely-reported assertion that Tashfeen Malik talked openly on social media about violent jihad. That’s led to criticism that the U.S. intelligence services failed to pick up even the most public warnings that she and her husband were a threat. In fact, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, criticized the Department of Homeland Security during Tuesday’s debate that authorities missed the messages.

There appears to be just one problem with the assertion, pinned on the New York Times. There’s no evidence it’s true.

“So far, in this investigation we have found no evidence of posting on social media by either of them at that period in time and thereafter reflecting their commitment to jihad or to martyrdom. I’ve seen some reporting on that, and that’s a garble,” FBI Director James B. Comey said yesterday.

Comey did say that private communication talked of jihad, but not public postings.

Washington Post blogger Erik Wemple calls the discrepancy “a gigantic deal.”

The New York Times, after all, didn’t merely report that Malik had made public Facebook postings about her feelings about jihad; it wrapped that contention into what reads as a condemnation of the U.S. anti-terrorism apparatus.

The thrust of the story comes through with trademarked New York Times precision in its lede: “Tashfeen Malik, who with her husband carried out the massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., passed three background checks by American immigration officials as she moved to the United States from Pakistan.

None uncovered what Ms. Malik had made little effort to hide — that she talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad. She said she supported it.

And she said she wanted to be a part of it.” The balanced investigative piece discusses the “shortcomings” in how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) screens foreigners coming into the United States, as Malik did in July 2014 through a K-1 visa, which allows a foreign national fiance(e) to move to the United States to marry.

President Obama has ordered a review of K-1 visas.

Wemple insists the story needs a retraction.

On Tuesday, I talked about covering stories like this with David Folkenflik of NPR and Bruce Shapiro, the executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University.

  1. Listen How should the media cover mass shootings.

  • kevins

    Oftentimes it is better to listen first, talk second.

  • MrE85

    I agree with Wemple. If I was a reporter covering this story, I would seek verification before I reported. I was even doubt my own eyes, as it is easy to fake social media messages.

  • CHS

    A retraction would make the people who fret about journalistic standards feel better, but the damage is done. Lots of people saw that original NYT story, myself included. Coming from the NYT I believed it to be accurate reporting. It did make me question the K1 visa process, and the competence of the system. Now, if I wasn’t a NewsCut regular (and very diligent on following news ‘below the fold’) it would be very unlikely that I would know anything about the botched story and it’s false claims, so I’d go on thinking the system failed. The average person isn’t going to hear about the retraction and let it inform their view on this complex topic, and this is driving everything from presidential debates to how people react to someone wearing a hijab in the supermarket. So yes, verify, make absolutely sure. If you can’t trust a foundational outlet like the NYT to get something this big right, what news can you trust?

    • And that’s the danger here: that somehow public policy ends up being dictated by inaccurate reporting.

      Wemple’s takedown of the Los Angeles Times, by the way, is a classic.

  • Gary F

    The old grey lady. Why does anyone take her seriously anymore?

    • Postal Customer

      Journalists get things wrong. It happens. And maybe the story does indeed need to be retracted.

      But overall, in my opinion, there’s still no better forum than the Times, at least for people who would like to think that our country hasn’t totally abandoned reason and intelligence.

      • Gary F

        Then their front page Op-ed asking for more gun control even though California has some of the strictest laws on the book and none of them prevented this horror.

  • Rob

    Retractions have no value unless they are the most prominent piece on the first page, or at the top of the home page online.

  • lindblomeagles

    What we’re going to learn is that this couple acted like many common American criminals do — there was a beef at work or at play; the couple got offended; executed their Second Amendment Rights; and got “childish” revenge for being “dissed.”

    • Fred, Just Fred

      Hope springs eternal in some corners, I guess.

  • Mike Worcester

    I was in Florida when the Paris attacks took place. As a group of us sat in the hotel lounge the cable news was covering the situation as live as it could. What struck me — and really it should not have, but for some reason it did — was how:
    A – The same video footage kept getting repeated over and over, which I chalked up to the general lack of video feed in fluid and volatile situation, and
    B – How there was so much chatter that was sheer speculation; so much of “there is an unverified report that” or “sources close to the investigation are telling us that” or “one of our reporters overheard someone say that”.

    It’s been said a bazillion times it seems but this race to have information first rather than having correct information is ill-serving the news seeking public. Then again, I’m still cynical enough to believe in the adage, trust but verify,