Media repeat, but don’t check, claims of armed neo-Nazis where Trayvon Martin was killed
A leader of a neo-Nazi group called the National Socialist Movement says his group has organized armed patrols of Sanford, Fla., the town where George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin.
"You can either be prepared or you can be blindsided," NSM Commander Jeff Schoep told the Miami New Times for a Friday morning blog post, the first to report claims of armed patrols. "This way, if something were to touch off a race riot, we'd already be in the area."
But are they actually patrolling the area? The New Times story didn't include comment from local authorities or any other sources that could confirm this. Its story went online with the eye-popping headline, "Armed Neo-Nazis Now Patrolling Sanford, Say They Are 'Prepared' for Post-Trayvon Martin Violence."
The story spread rapidly to other media outlets, including the New York Daily News, Gawker, The Huffington Post, Raw Story, the New York Post, Mediaite, The Blaze, The Daily Beast, Drudge and the Daily Mail.
All of them repeated the information in the Miami New Times article: Heavily armed patrols of neo-Nazis are underway. None of the articles included a comment from local police or residents.
It appears the first person to think it might be a good idea to get a second source on the neo-Nazis' claim was William A. Jacobson, an associate professor at Cornell Law School, who runs the Legal Insurrection blog. (I spotted his post thanks to an item on NewsBusters about how this story spread.)
Here's the response Jacobson got from the Sanford Joint Information Center:
At this time the City of Sanford has not confirmed the presence of Neo-Nazis groups. ... We have no indication of any such patrols at this point in Sanford. The only large gathering was the children and their parents at the Easter egg hunt.
Yet by that point, the story was all over the Web. After Jacobson's post started to get attention, some outlets, including the Miami New Times, updated their posts.
The headline on the New Times piece now says it's been updated, but it still includes the phrase, "Armed Neo-Nazis Now Patrolling Sanford." Here's the update that was added to the story, which is currently the most viewed and commented story on the site:
The Sanford Police Department says that it has no evidence of neo-Nazis in the area. “We have not seen any neo-Nazis on patrol nor have we had any reports of them,” says Sgt. David Morgenstern. He added that there had been no sign of the New Black Panther Party, either.
Other outlets that have updated their accounts include the Daily News, Mediaite and The Blaze. But there are still plenty of stories that make no mention of the important, contradictory information from police.
Contacted by email, Michael Miller, author of the New Times story, told me NSM leader Schoep still claims his volunteers are on the ground.
"To my knowledge, Schoep has not changed his story," Miller said by email. "He has since told me that one of NSM's patrols will meet with media in Sanford this afternoon. As I made clear in the article, Schoep claims there are only 10-20 NSM volunteers riding around Seminole County in several cars. He also says that, unlike on the Arizona-Mexico border, they are not brandishing weapons or flying Confederate flags."
Why mention the Arizona-Mexico border patrols? Because in their articles, the New Times and others splashed photos of those heavily-armed patrols, helping to feed the impression that this was what was going on in Sanford.
Miller said his original report isn't wrong just because police deny the presence of patrols. Responding to an email in which I called his piece incorrect, he wrote:
The fact that local law enforcement has not yet seen evidence of the Neo-Nazis does not mean that Schoep is lying or that the article is, as you put it, "incorrect."
In a reply, I agreed that it's possible there are patrols that haven't been noticed by local police. I also pointed out that his piece didn't make that element of uncertainty clear. Perhaps as a result, I wrote, this aspect "has been lost in all of the reports that followed your first story."
Then there's the question of whether the New Times, and all the outlets that piled on without adding any value, accurately portrayed what's going on in Sanford. I'd point to the alarmist headline and the lead sentence from the New Times as answers:
Neo-Nazis are conducting heavily armed patrols in and around Sanford, Florida, and are "prepared" for violence in case of a race riot.
That doesn't reflect the kind of context Miller offered in our email exchange. It sounds like exactly the kind of patrol you'd expect local authorities to notice.
Jacobson, the lawyer who unlike so many journalists thought to email Sanford officials for comment, had this to say about the story in his post:
I can’t say this is the worst example of rumor mongering and irresponsible conduct by bloggers and the mainstream media I have ever seen, but it’s a contender.
For The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, Mediaite, and The Daily News to spread such thinly-sourced claims without verification at a time when racial tensions already are high is irresponsible in the extreme.
Let's hope Gawker, HuffPost, The Daily Beast, New York Post and all the other websites will update their respective stories as soon as possible to reflect the comments from law enforcement.
Let's also hope journalists ask good questions at today's planned press event with the NSM patrol group, that they consult other sources to back up what the group claims, and that their stories accurately reflect what is and isn't happening.
Update: Miami New Times editor Chuck Strouse replied in the comments of this post. He writes in part:
High-minded criticism, indeed. But wrong-headed and Luddite. We reported the claims of one group and updated the post as quickly as we got the information. It was couched as claims. (Our only mistake: the headline should have included "group claims." The story clearly made this point.)
I replied to him in the comments. The short version: The story didn't qualify Schoep's comments, and before the headline and the lead were changed Monday, they definitively repeated his claims. You can see Strouse's and my comments in full below. Feel free to chime in.