As you’ve noticed, “the media” — i.e., we — are struggling with details in the Connecticut shooting case.
When my daughter and I first heard about the tragedy, the body count was two or three. We had just left my wife’s school — she’s a special ed teacher at an elementary school — so the story definitely caught my ear. My daughter asked me why they weren’t sure about the number of victims and I explained how breaking news reporting is done.
I told her the long story about the Virginia Tech shootings: For a couple of hours that morning, officials — and, thusly, the media — were reporting two or three victims. Then, during a press conference, an official came out and said: Thirty-two were dead.
Even over the TV, you could hear the group of reporters gasp in unison. That’s a moment I won’t forget soon.
Now, did that mean the media had it wrong? Well, it wasn’t correct. But the best the media could do in the Tech incident was to report the info it had been given by law enforcement or campus officials (I don’t remember which, and I’m too lazy today to go back and check). The simple fact is: Facts change over the course of reporting breaking news. That’s kind of the nature of breaking news.
Over hours or days, officials — or reporters or both — uncover new facts or evidence. That information finds its way into TV reports or newspaper or web stories, either by official or unofficial means. In addition, news agencies send out multiple reporters in multiple directions to pursue multiple angles. In some cases, a story will consist of bits and pieces collected by each of those reporters and woven into a (hopefully) cohesive narrative by folks back in the office.
Sometimes this process works smoothly. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, it drags out into weeks or months or even years. You old-timers out there will remember the Watergate story, pursued over months by two scrappy young Washington Post reporters who were seemingly outmatched by the reach of their story.
In All the President’s Men, they wrap up the entire thing in less than two hours. But in real life, of course, it didn’t happen that way. Man, it was hard to follow all the twists and turns (and, yes, the occasional dead-ends) of that story as it developed and was reported over time. Administration officials wouldn’t comment. When they did, it was to misdirect or even lie about what happened. If the reporters had had to wait until every bit of the story was clear before they published something, it would never have been published in the first place.
The huge difference between then and now: Because of recent inventions like 24-hour news channels, the internet and Twitter, even fast-paced breaking news stories seem agonizingly slow to unfold to those of us watching on our laptops and mobile devices.
What? They have the wrong name of the shooter? Turns out his mother was NOT a teacher? What the hell?
Some of this information was undoubtedly from “official sources,” albeit not necessarily on the record. Some may have just been rumor (and, therefore, shouldn’t have been reported). Some of it was just stupid. (Pulling up a photo of a man on Facebook and plastering it all over your TV screen or web page before officials announce his name, for example. I’m looking at you, Fox News.)
Clearly, the news industry needs to revisit reporting ethics yet again. Just as we did after the premature reports of Joe Paterno‘s death earlier this year. We have enough credibility issues in this business already without dumbass stuff like this.
But still — not to apologize for some of these lapses in reporting and news judgment — I spent several years in Raleigh and Chicago serving in a “graphics reporting” capacity. In other words, I’d be sent out to the scene of a breaking news story and, sketchpad in hand, I’d try to piece together some kind of graphic — a timeline, a map, a diagram — something to explain how the event unfolded.
Over the years, I covered three shootings, several railroad accidents and plane crashes, a building that was struck by a mail bomber and one horrific story in which a fraternity house burned down, killing five students the night before graduation. I earned awards from the Society for News Design in three consecutive years for my breaking news graphics reporting. So I’d like to think I was pretty decent at it.
Over the course of reporting these stories, I’d talk to witnesses and officials and sketch like crazy. In some cases, I’d take info from our other reporters on the scene. In a few cases, I’d give info to our reporters.
In every case, though, the stories came together over the course of hours. The graphic wasn’t ready until it was ready. My editors depended on my news judgment to decide when I was done collecting info, when to send sketches back to the office — where, in some cases, my colleagues would draw from those sketches while I wrote the text.
I didn’t have to tweet every little sentence fragment or relay every separate sketch for publication. If I had been forced to stop in the middle of my work and report what tidbits I had collected so far — for public consumption — some mighty crappy work would have been pushed out to readers.
So the need to continually “feed the beast” — based on the race for pageviews and a readership that’s hanging on every word and incremental report via their mobile devices — is part of the problem we’ve seen in Connecticut this week. An eagerness — perhaps an overeagerness — to use anonymous sources or leaked or off-the-record info — is another. And a tendency to leap to conclusions — as in the case of the Facebook mug — is a third.
I wanted to relay to you an old battle story, though, that demonstrates how breaking news reporting can go wrong. And how it can go well.
In January 1995, a disturbed young man in Chapel Hill, N.C., picked up a vintage WWII-style M1 carbine rifle, drove to a spot not far from the campus of the University of North Carolina and — there’s no way to put this politely — walked up a residential street toward campus, looking for people to shoot.
Now, as luck would have it, the man was stopped after he killed “only” two people. Thankfully, he didn’t have a modern assault-type weapon. He could easily have killed several more, especially if he had made it onto campus itself. The hero of the day was a bartender — Bill Leone, a former Marine — who took it upon himself to “pick his way” through a parking lot, creep up behind the gunman and tackle him in the middle of Henderson Street.
Police rushed up, disarmed the gunman and arrested him. Only afterwards did someone discover that the bartender had taken a bullet — to the shoulder, as I recall — probably from the police officers who were firing at the shooter during the incident. They immediately rushed the brave young man to the university hospital.
When I arrived on the scene, I found two of what I’d call “centers of activity.” The TV trucks, with all their microwave dishes and heavy equipment and makeup-obsessed reporters, were parked up the street where the sheet-covered bodies of the victims were still laying. I knew we had other reporters working the scene and I figured that, other than a map, there wasn’t much to learn there. So I used my news judgment to focus on what I figured would be the most dramatic part of the story and the one I could best tell graphically: How the incident was ended.
So I went there instead. Only to find I was about the only reporter talking to the witnesses who had seen the bartender’s heroics and even to police officers who had made the arrest. Naturally, I assembled a step-by-step description of how Leone’s takedown happened. And I made a hell of a lot of sketches of the area.
Which, I might add, I still have:
At one point, a TV truck from Fox News Channel 22 pulled up. A short blonde guy — with immaculate hair and makeup, of course — walked up to me with his cameraman in tow and asked me to share all my notes with him.
This same guy did this to me nearly every time I saw him. I didn’t have much respect for him or his expectation that I’d spend hours tracking down facts and then just hand them all over to him. This one time — in a fit of pique — I shrugged and told him: I dunno, but all the other TV trucks were down the street. That’s where the bodies were found.
The TV guy got all excited and went trotting in that direction. I just laughed and so did the cops I was interviewing. I continued to have the witnesses to myself.
Eventually, I decided I had enough information to quit reporting and begin drawing. I headed to the News & Observer‘s Chapel Hill bureau — which was headed up by Nancy Barnes, who’s now the editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune — and I began pulling my sketches together into something a little more cohesive. I faxed the result back to the graphics department in Raleigh. My graphics editor — the wonderful Ken Mowry — assigned two artists to work with him to turn my sketches into vector drawings. Meanwhile, I wrote the text for the graphic and sent that, too, back to the office.
While I was working on all this, one of our reporters came up to me and asked if I had gotten all I needed. I sure did, I replied.
Did you get the name of the guy who took down the shooter?, the reporter asked. I sure did, I replied. Leone. A bartender.
Um, wrong, the reporter told me. It was a lawyer.
This was the first I had heard of this. I knew that there was a law office across the street from the bartender (and directly behind the spot where Leone had taken down the shooter). So, in fact, this sounded plausible. But I had spoken to eyewitnesses to Leone’s actions, including police officers. So I stood my ground. No, it wasn’t a lawyer. It was a bartender.
No, it was the lawyer, the reporter insisted. No, it was the bartender, I replied. In fact, I added, the bartender even took a bullet while he was doing it. Um, we DO have someone at the hospital ready to talk to him as soon as he’s released, don’t we?
Now, it was the reporter’s turn to be taken aback. He paused a second. Then the light bulb went on. He turned on his heels and ran out of the bureau.
I took that as a: No, we do not have someone at the hospital.
Confident in my story, I finished my text and sent it to my editor. Once Ken confirmed he had no further questions, I headed for home.
Here’s the final graphic we came up with that day. Click for a larger view:
Leone did indeed make the tackle that day. Our folks did indeed speak to him upon his release from the hospital. We got a great sidebar out of it and, eventually, the governor of North Carolina gave the man an award for his brave actions.
Here is the jump page from the next day, featuring our graphic, a smaller ammo graphic drawn by my colleague Woody Vondracek and the sidebar on Bill Leone across the bottom.
But here’s what I didn’t know: After Leone made the tackle, a lawyer from the offices across the street ran out and helped hold down the shooter until the police got him immobilized. A few minutes later, the police found Leone’s bullet wound and rushed him to the hospital. The lawyer — insert your own rude lawyer joke here — walked up the street and presented himself to the media collecting there as the man who stopped the rampage.
The next day, the News & Observer had the story right. It was right in my graphic, it was right in our main story and it was right in the sidebar. The Durham paper, however, mentioned only the lawyer. They didn’t know about Leone at all. Nor did our main news competitor in Raleigh, WRAL Channel 5.
I hesitate to say that I scooped those other outlets or even our own staffers because, quite frankly, our reporter was a brilliant young man. I’m confident he’d have found out long before deadline, even without my “comparing notes” with him.
But my point is this: Our reporting process worked particularly well that particular day. I had pretty decent judgment (thankfully), thanks to careful coaching and encouragement from my (brilliant) editors over the years and, in particular, there at the News & Observer. I had wonderful editing and supervision (and support) from my own supervisor, Ken Mowry.
But if I had had to report my info two or three times throughout the day — before I felt my data collection work was done — I’d have reported an incomplete story. And then, once I had reported a piss-poor, fact-challenged story, I might even be tempted to call it a day and not go the extra mile to check facts and compare notes with my colleagues.
That’s the sort of stuff that happens when you cut corners. You get sloppy. I wasn’t sloppy that day. If I had been sloppy, my (again, brilliant) editors would have caught it quickly enough.
But even brilliant, well-meaning journalists can miss facts. Sometimes, facts “change” over time: That’s why law-enforcement officials hold multiple press conferences. They’re updates.
Some parts of a story must be reported incrementally (think about my earlier example of Watergate). But not all parts of a story must be reported. Some parts need to be held until they’re thoroughly checked out.
Report no fact before its time.
How can we tell the difference between the kinds of facts that we should report right away — via TV or Twitter or live blog — and the facts we should sit on for a while longer? I should leave that to the experts in reporting ethics. However, I’d think part of the criteria might run something like this: Will anyone be hurt if this fact is wrong? If so, let’s factor that into our decision.
That’s my little spiel about breaking news reporting.
…Oh, one more thing. Remember the little blonde (male) reporter that I found so annoying?
He’s now a radio-based preacher. I kid you not.