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.

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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