ABC News, Breitbart fall short in owning up to mistakes on Colorado theater shooter

During a major breaking news story like Friday’s mass killing at a film premiere in Colorado, journalists go hunting for any information they can find. Initially, there’s a big focus on the “who.”

The name of the gunman. The names of victims.

But ABC News’ Brian Ross overreached Friday morning, telling viewers — with little evidence — that shooter James Holmes may have connections to the tea party. His evidence: A “Jim Holmes” of Aurora, Colo., had posted something to the Colorado Tea Party website.

That was followed by an equally thin suggestion by Breitbart blogger Joel B. Pollak that the shooter could be a registered Democrat. That, too, turned out to be false.

The common denominator here — aside from a willingness to throw out unsubstantiated claims during a high-stakes, breaking news story — is that both outlets tried to chase down a fairly common name in the hopes of finding something revealing about the shooter.

Nail the “who,” and the “why” often will follow. Flub the who, and the why goes awry.

Inadequate efforts to correct

As with the mistakes made by CNN and Fox News with the Supreme Court’s health care verdict, the errors led to inadequate or nonexistent corrections.

ABC News’ first statement about the error attempted to deflect blame:

An earlier ABC News broadcast report suggested that a Jim Holmes of a Colorado Tea Party organization might be the suspect, but that report was incorrect. Several other local residents with similar names were also contacted via social media by members of the public who mistook them for the suspect.

See, the other kids were doing it, too. ABC News seemed to realize this attempt at minimization, and lack of apology, was the wrong course. It issued an apology:

An earlier ABC News broadcast report suggested that a Jim Holmes of a Colorado Tea Party organization might be the suspect, but that report was incorrect. ABC News and Brian Ross apologize for the mistake, and for disseminating that information before it was properly vetted.

Over at Breitbart, there are only “updates,” no corrections. Here’s the current headline on the post:

EXCLUSIVE: CONTRA ABC NEWS, DARK KNIGHT AURORA, CO SHOOTING SUSPECT JAMES HOLMES COULD BE REGISTERED DEMOCRAT – UPDATE: NOT REGISTERED?

The post itself maintains the original lead, which suggests that ABC News’ Ross was wrong and the shooter could be a registered Democrat. You have to scroll all the way to the bottom, to the final update posted two hours after the post first went up, to learn none of it is true.

Even then the website doesn’t admit error:

Newly-released information on the suspect’s birthdate (which, as indicated in our initial report, was a slight mismatch), combined with new details Breitbart News has obtained about the suspect’s likely addresses, together suggest that the suspect may, in fact, not have been registered to vote.

One disheartening conclusion from this and the Supreme Court mistake is that some news organizations are getting worse at breaking news verification and corrections, not better.

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  • Anonymous

    For too long, the emphasis has been on having the story first when it should be having it right.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1430411190 Joey Myers

     Boy this went way over your head. Breitbart gives an example of ABC’s deception to show how idiotic what ABC did was…and you take it .COMPLETELY wrong. You’re not this dumb. I don’t believe it.

  • http://twitter.com/ObserverNY ObserverNY

    I’m disappointed that a Breitbart blogger went down this road without solid facts.Just because ABC did it, I expect Breitbart to take the higher road, especially so soon after the tragedy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/samuel.att.3 Samuel Att

    While I concede the people at Breitbart are partisan hacks I think you’re missing their point.  The reason they jumped on ABCNews is because ABCNews claims to be unbiased.  Seeing a shooting and going straight to the tea party website shows that bias.  

    Breitbart’s mistake, while showing the don’t grasp irony, doesn’t reveal a bias because everyone knows they’re biased.  By their own admission.  

    Having said all that I wish we didn’t have to keep arguing over this stuff.  Of course ABCNews is biased.  Their anchor was the communications director for Bill Clinton for God’s sakes.  Why they can’t just admit to their bias and move on I’ll never know.  

  • Anonymous

    This is also revealing w/r/t voter suppression. If Breitbart’s “James Holmes” just registered a year ago yet already is listed as an “inactive voter” as indicated, this means he would not be mailed a ballot under the GOP Secretary of State’s rules in Colorado in a mail-only election. How does one become “inactive” in less than a year after registering?

  • John McAdams

    Let’s add something here:  ABC is a liberal mainstream media outlet, and of course doesn’t like the tea party.  And Brietbart is conservative, and therefore happy to blame a Democrat (or at least take the wind out of the sails of the liberal media).