Calm down, media, before you hurt someone

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on September 16, 2013

From The News Desk

This morning at least one shooter opened fire at the Washington Navy Yard killing at least 13 and wounding many others. Then some new outlets engaged in the usual media modus operandi: In the morning frenzy, news teams competed over who could be first to get out any and all information they had to the public. Then the inevitable mistake occurred.

NBC and CBS provided reports that identified one of the shooters as a man named Rollie Chance, after finding an ID card near the body of one of the shooters. Shortly after the news outlets issued official retractions via their Twitter handles.

It seems that news outlets, in their endless attempt to scrape any and all information to provide the first -- most "newsworthy" -- scoop, invariably publish or broadcast something that is later considered wildly erroneous. Today was only one example, and it isn't difficult to find others that occurred merely months before. Bookies might as well start taking bets about what information is going to be mishandled in the next national crisis.

All jokes aside, these screw-ups involve and damage innocent bystanders.

Last spring, for example, after the Boston Marathon bombing, news outlets and internet vigilantes combed through any and all information to find out the truth behind the massacre. The New York Post ran a front-page story entitled "Bag Men," which included a picture of two men carrying bags during the race and named two potential suspects, Salaheddin Barhoum and Yassin Zaimi.

Later it was discovered these men's only crime, if you can call it that, was that they were caught on surveillance cameras and they happened to not be white. The most heartbreaking misidentification involved Sunil Tripathi, a missing Brown student who was misidentified by members of Reddit as the actual Boston Bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. His body turned up in a river a few weeks later.

There was also the elementary school shooting in Newtown, CT, where 20 children and 6 adults were murdered by a deranged gunman. While the shooter, Adam Lanza, had killed himself during the rampage, the Huffington Post and Slate found a page that belonged to a different Ryan Lanza, who was not involved with the shooting, and posted the link in their articles.

During the mixup, people posted messages to Adam Lanza and his friends, writing things like "You Is A Dead Man Walking," and "WHAT COULD POSSIBLY MAKE YOU WANT TO KILL LITTLE BABIES."

On July 20, 2012, there was the shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, CO, that killed 12 and wounded 59. News reports disclosed the shooter's name as James Holmes. One ABC reporter, Brian Ross, discovered another man by the name of Jim Holmes who had an affiliation with the Tea Party. So he went on "Good Morning America" and said, "We don't know if this is the same Jim Holmes. But it's Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado," showing this aforementioned Tea Party member. It soon became apparent  the two weren't linked, and both ABC and the reporter, Brian Ross, apologized for not properly fact checking.

There are many others, dating back as far as 25 years ago. In 1996 Richard Jewell, a security guard at the Atlanta Summer Olympics, went from hero to reviled bombing suspect in the course of days. Jewell found a green bag he believed to contain a bomb. He alerted police, and quickly began shepherding visitors away when teh bomb went off, killing one and injuring 111. Three days later, the Atlanta Journal reported that Jewell was a suspect. This led to months of searches and interrogations by numerous state and federal law enforcement. Finally, after months of public and private intrusion, it became obvious that Jewell wasn't involved and the Justice Department cleared his name.

There was also the 2001 anthrax scare. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, an unknown individual mailed envelopes containing deadly anthrax powder to government and media officials. These packages caused five deaths and the infection of seventeen others. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff wrote extensively about these attacks, and specifically focused on the perpetrator who he named "Mr. Z."

In August of 2002 Kristoff identified Mr. Z as a research scientist and bio-weapons expert named Dr. Steven Hatfill. Hatfill vehemently maintained his innocence, and was eventually exonerated by authorities. Following this, he sued Kristoff for defamation, and ultimately lost.

As far as 1988, we have Michael Schafer, a man from Atlanta who owned a floor cleaning company, who found his picture in Time Magazine connected to the bombing on Pan Am Flight 103. Time, it must be said, was attempting to provide an alternative theory to what authorities had already determined. It used Schafer's picture but mistakenly attributed it to another man, David Lovejoy, a Palestinian double agent. Schafer, like Hatfill, sued Time, and settled out of court.

And don't forget the 2000 election, when some networks initially called the race for Al Gore.

As Farhad Manjoo put it, "Breaking news is broken." With ever greater numbers of platforms to disseminate information – from TV to online to Twitter, Facebook, and others to emerge in the near future – reporters, tempted by the drug of being first, have been unable to say no to unverified information.

While information can be transmitted faster to a greater number of people, we must realize the power and danger that comes with this. Undoubtedly there will be a number of posts similar to mine, chiding news outlets for their shoddy coverage. But my point isn't just the misinformation. It's that real people and their reputations are at stake.

The last thing we needs is another angry, misguided witch-hunt; we have enough of those already without the media's help.