Details about Colorado shooter too important to tweet incrementally

My Poynter colleagues already have noted how ABC News and Breitbart rashly reported thinly-sourced information about James Holmes, the man accused of shooting up a Colorado movie theater Friday morning.

They should have held off reporting the supposed connections to the tea party or the Democratic Party until they had more than just a lead. In the same way, I think this was the wrong time for journalists to tweet their attempts to confirm those reports. In short, it was the wrong time for process journalism.

I use Edward Champion, managing editor of a culture site called Reluctant Habits, to illustrate a practice that did little to inform and had the potential to misinform.

You may remember Champion as the man who ferreted out examples of Jonah Lehrer recycling material. Friday morning, he was one of many people tracking down leads on the shooter. He tweeted:

When someone asked Champion why he was “already starting Tea Party association rumors,” Champion responded, “Not spreading rumors. Seeking corroboration. This is an investigation. Note the question marks.”

But some of those tweets seemed more insistent than truly questioning.

The difference is striking when compared to how he dealt with the equally false report that the shooter was a registered Democrat:

Champion also tweeted that he was looking into a possible connection between Holmes and a shooting club, a connection that he dispelled about 30 minutes later.

I believe he was simply trying to keep his 5,000 followers apprised on his efforts to confirm these connections.

But on Twitter, such disclaimers are easily separated from other tweets that suggest that there’s something to these initial reports.

About three hours after Champion posed his question on Twitter, his reporting led him to conclude that the shooter was not the same Holmes involved with the tea party.

Last year, after some journalists spread a hoax that CNN had suspended Piers Morgan, Reuters’ Felix Salmon wrote that they shouldn’t be embarrassed. Twitter, he wrote, is “more like a newsroom than a newspaper.”

That’s what Champion’s tweets were — the updates that a reporter would provide to an editor or the asides she’d offer to a colleague. It was process journalism, similar to how CNN and Fox News handled the Supreme Court ruling. At least Champion was doing it on Twitter, where people expect incremental, incomplete information.

Champion’s tweets let people in on the process, but they shed no new information on the story that people really wanted to learn more about: the shooting itself. In the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting, when you’re trying to track down important details like the background of the shooter, people don’t want to hear the drip-drip of leaving voice mails and Googling names. They want solid information that helps them make sense of what happened.

Friday morning, the things that Edward Champion, ABC News’ Brian Ross and Breitbart’s Joel Pollak said should’ve stayed in the actual newsroom.

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  • Edward Champion

    Steve: Thanks very much for the back and forth here.  I really appreciate the exchange, which helps both of us to clarify our positions.  To a large degree, I share your concern about people misconstruing small bits as something else.  On the other hand, it’s somewhat absurd to carry on work with the fear that a few people will misinterpret it.  As Ian McEwan once put it in his journalism novel AMSTERDAM, “By a mere backward movement of stress, a verb can become a noun, an act a thing.”  Confine the column inch to 140 characters and the interpretive possibilities from limitations expand beyond measure.

    I suspect that I possess a larger faith than you about Twitter users following an individual person’s feed and tracing the threads to the original sources.  And as I stated above, I’m also willing to take the risk that something being investigated may lead to a dead end.  But having established that James Holmes was not political in any way (the other big item not mentioned in your article was when I looked into the Colorado Secretary of State, which had no voter registration records for Holmes), I believe that this advanced the story sufficiently enough to nullify any further speculation into Holmes’s politics, which Breitbart and ABC were both reporting long after I confirmed these points.

    Last year, in a piece for Salon about why she quit the mainstream media which almost anticipated 2012′s dialogue about storytelling vs. journalism (Mike Daisey), creative nonfiction vs. journalism (D’Agata and Fingal), self-plagiarism vs. original journalism (Jonah Lehrer), and factual errors in reviews of fiction (the recent Janet Maslin reviews in the New York Times), Natasha Lennard observed that, when she freelanced at the Gray Lady, she had problems with what becomes a fact or what rises to the level of a reportable fact.  “Going forward,” wrote Lennard, “I want to take responsibility for my voice and the facts that I choose and relay.  I want them to instigate change.”

    I agree with your point about having the right skills.  But let’s not forget that there are many types of journalism out there: some with more voice and subjectivity than others.  A commitment to the facts keeps everybody dancing at the same cotillion.  For my own part, I hope that my work instigates curiosity.  I take responsibility for the tweets, which were certainly not intended to harm or malign, but merely comprehend.  In my experience, a question mark within social media doesn’t prohibit other people from offering answers. Maybe that prospect of dialogue, which I find so exciting and invaluable about Twitter and which I see as a suitable counterweight to the risks of transparency, is that aspect of “process journalism” that we’ll hone over time.

    Thanks again for the dialogue.

    All best,

    Edward Champion

  • Poynter

    Sorry for the delay in responding; @twitter-1954481:disqus . First, I don’t think what you were doing was juvenile, pathetic or embarrassing. You were following leads. What I am concerned about, however, is how these bits of information, presented with little context, can shape people’s impressions. 

    I also agree that this information was already out there – in part due to irresponsible reporting on the part of ABC News – and that you were simply trying to report it out. 

    As for the gun club, the reason I didn’t spend more time on it was that you debunked it in about 30 mins, whereas the tea party connection remained open for much longer. Consider, though: if you could’ve waited 30 mins to tweet, you would simply have published the information that the gun club didn’t have anything to do with Holmes. That isn’t as transparent in terms of telling people what you’re working on, but considering it was a dead end, wouldn’t that have increased the signal to noise ratio yesterday?

    Some of your tweets were updates on your process, but others were just side comments, like the one about someone not having voicemail. I can see how someone could read your comment about the tea party not talking to journalists and think, what are they hiding? You probably didn’t mean that, but again, it’s more noise. Although Twitter is a conversational platform, I think people using it for journalism need to be conscious of how comments like those can dilute the impact of the valuable information they do post.

    I don’t see much value in talking about who is judged suitable to do this kind of work. I think anyone with the right skills can do this, regardless of whether you’re doing it for a culture website or CNN. But I do think we should balance our desire to be transparent about our efforts with the impact of the information we put out there, especially when it’s done on a platform in which small bits of information can spread widely without context or caveat.

    Thanks for commenting on the post. 

    Steve Myers

  • Edward Champion

    Thank you for writing about my efforts.  The point here was to remain open and transparent about a lingering question that was on many people’s minds: Who was James Holmes?  What were his motivations (if any)? Obviously, journalism involves following a lot of dead leads, sometimes resulting in paths departing from the original angle.  But there is nothing juvenile, pathetic, or embarrassing — as BensonH suggests in the comment below — about following a line of inquiry to the very end — as I clearly did in this case.  I am not especially interested in whether “people don’t want to hear the drip-drip of leaving voice mails and Googling names.” I’m interested in confirming information.  And sometimes “process journalism,” as you call it, involves “drip-drip.” 

    It’s worth pointing out that, at the time that I was pursuing this investigation, many people were imparting political affiliation to Holmes.  The available online data was that there was a James Holmes who was a member of a gun club (presented, swiftly debunked, and curiously downplayed in your report here: if you’re going to imply tendentious motive on my part, then I would argue that it’s equally tendentious and “drip-drip” to do this in your piece: but we can disagree on this point) and that there was a James Holmes who was a member of the Colorado Tea Party Patriots.  One was easier to suss out than the other — in large part because, with the Colorado Tea Party Patriots, there were a lot of phone calls to make and people to reach at a very early hour.  Some of the people I talked with had not even heard the terrible news.  The point of being open was to allow other people to provide new bits of information as they came in, that could be proven or disproven (such as the easily debunked Gag9 thread rumor, brought to my attention by another Twitter user). 

    Unlike BensonH, I am not especially interested in the privileged approach — although I did respect the privacy of the Tea Party members by not naming them publicly.  It is also worth pointing out that ABC News did not contact a single member of the Colorado Tea Party Patriots.  But I did.

    I am sorry if BensonH feels threatened by the
    perfectly reasonable notion of being open and communicative with a readership.  We can disagree about how open and communicative we need to be, but I think it is tenfold more pernicious for horse carriage acolytes like BensonH to be smug and insular about journalism at a time when it demands inclusion and transparency if ordinary people, the very people who you are trying to reach, are expected to afford it any respect. 

  • Anonymous

    This Edward Champion is a disgrace. 1. is he really a journalist? 2. Who the heck conducts an investigation on twitter? Usually, when a journalist investigates something, it’s on the down low and not publicly revealed until it’s over. 3. Who really cares of the shooter was a Tea Party or Democrat member? Putting a political twist on a tragedy that has nothing to do with politics is juvenile, pathetic and an embarrassment to real journalism. This was not process journalism. His tweets were not journalism. This kind of crap, even calling it journalism, is what has been hurting this industry for years now. Poynter even calling this guy a journalist is harmful.