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.