Brian Ross’ appalling error linking the Tea Party movement to the suspected Batman-movie shooter in Colorado demonstrates anew how slow journalists can be in grasping an elementary lesson of disaster coverage: Resist temptation to report more than you can immediately verify.
In the hours just after a disaster, journalists tend to be especially prone to error and imprecision, as Ross, the chief investigative correspondent for ABC News, amply demonstrated in declaring today on Good Morning America:
“There is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado, page on the Tea Party site as well, talking about him joining the Tea Party last year.
“Now, we don’t know if this is the same Jim Holmes,” Ross added, “but it is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colo.”
The suspect arrested in the shootings early today at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, is named James Holmes. But he is not the “Jim Holmes” to whom Ross referred, and the suspected killer has no known connections to the grassroots Tea Party movement, which advocates restraints in government spending.
It soon was clear that Ross’ speculative remarks associating the killer with the Tea Party were in error. ABC News offered an apology — an apology that raised important unanswered questions:
“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.”
But how did that happen? How did Ross — a veteran television reporter whose ABC biography unabashedly declares him “one of the most honored and respected journalists in the country” — come to disseminate “information before it was properly vetted”?
ABC’s apology didn’t say.
It may have been that Ross was excessively eager to be first in reporting a linkage to a conservative political movement. He may have been unable to restrain his ideological inclinations. He may have been misled by a producer.
Whatever the reason, his error on a television program that attracts 4.5 million viewers was inexcusable — and eminently preventable.
In the swirling uncertainty that invariably marks the hours after a disaster, journalists are well-served to show deliberation and restraint, to be mindful that error and distortion often blight the first reports of dramatic events.
I discuss this phenomenon in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, noting that “it is a near-certainty that erroneous reports will circulate in a disaster’s immediate aftermath.”
I also point out in Getting It Wrong:
“By recognizing that implausible rumors and exaggerated casualty tolls almost always are among the first effects of major disasters, journalists may spare themselves considerable embarrassment and their audiences great confusion.”
Getting It Wrong revisits the badly flawed news reporting of Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans in 2005 — which offers enduring if unlearned lessons for journalists about the near-certainty of error in disaster coverage.
The reporting about Katrina’s destructive assault, I write, “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong.”
“They reported snipers firing at medical personnel. They reported that shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center [in New Orleans].
“They told of bodies being stacked there like cordwood. They reported roving gangs were preying on tourists and terrorizing the occupants of the Superdome, raping and killing. They said children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.”
In the end, none of those reports was verified or substantiated.
Other examples of erroneous news reports about unfolding disasters are not difficult to find.
As I point out in Getting It Wrong, “initial and worst-case estimates of disaster casualties almost always are exaggerated. This happened in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City, offering a ready point of reference for reporters covering Katrina’s aftermath. The initial estimates of 10,000 deaths in New York were considerably overstated.”
Early reports about the attacks of September 11, 2001, also were distorted by error — by accounts, for example, of a car bombing at State Department, of military aircraft downing a hijacked plane near Camp David.
All too often, the news media are disinclined to revisit their disaster-coverage lapses and account for the errors. Such was the case in Katrina’s aftermath, when news organizations offered at best feeble and one-off explanations for their flawed and exaggerated reporting.
Ross and ABC News owe their viewers nothing less than a thorough and candid accounting for their error today.
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