Confusing coverage in breaking news may be SOP, but pre-empting tweets is new

California manhunt subject Christopher Dorner may or may not be dead: Forensics investigators will look at the teeth and make chest X-rays of the charred corpse found in a rental cabin where police say the former Los Angeles police officer holed up and exchanged gunfire with cops.

That image perfectly encapsulates the gnarly reporting around last night's shootout. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office asked reporters to stop tweeting in the event Dorner was monitoring Twitter (police made the same request of TV viewers). Candy Martin, who was surprised to see her rental cabin on television -- told police it had "no cable, telephone or Internet service," the Los Angeles Times reported.

KPCC didn't comply with the request and posted some bewildered reaction from media outlets and consumers alike. "It's not unusual, particularly in a police standoff, for police to ask television in particular to be very careful in their live coverage," Poynter's Al Tompkins told me in a phone call. "But this idea of Twitter coverage is a new wrinkle."

Tompkins mentioned an incident in Pittsburgh last year where a hostage-taker interacted with friends on Facebook during a standoff. "It's an invevitable problem that police must be very concerned about," Tompkins said. "It's not unreasonable for police to ask for moderation, but they ought to explain their request. And if media decide to moderate their coverage, they have a responsibility to explain why."

CBS News correspondent Carter Evans wandered into the area of engagement and dropped to the ground, holding the phone line open so viewers could hear gunfire, Merrill Knox reported for TVSpy. Even in that confusion, though, what was happening with the cabin was more or less clear; what followed was the sort of rough-hewn reporting that is now standard in breaking news situations.

Several news orgs reported Dorner's body was found, reports police later knocked back:


NBC News also said a body had been pulled out of the cabin, Adam Martin reports, adding that a prankster got on the air on CBS Los Angeles.

CNN had a particularly bumpy ride: A breaking news alert at 10:17 p.m. ET said “Law enforcement in California have pulled a body from a burning home and are conducting a forensic exam, multiple law enforcement sources tell former FBI assistant director and CNN contributor Tom Fuentes." A subsequent alert, at 12:27 a.m., said “Los Angeles police and the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Office moved Tuesday night to counter reports that a body believed to be that of renegade ex-cop Christopher Dorner had been recovered from a burning cabin near Big Bear Lake, California." And Wolf Blitzer said Dorner had hostages in the cabin with him, possibly based on a misreading of a L.A. Times report, TVWeek writes.

Related: Sandy Hook coverage: Is ‘good enough’ good enough?

Correction: We misspelled San Bernardino and Dorner's last name in this post. The headline has also been updated to more accurately reflect the Sheriff's Office's request.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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