As we pointed out in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, people will often spread incorrect information in the wake of a chaotic breaking news event. In some cases, errors come from journalists misinterpreting something or sources who provide accidentally erroneous information. In other cases, the work of trolls who have nothing better to do with their lives.
The guy who was “desperately searching for his father” after the Las Vegas attack turned out to be lying on purpose. Why did he do it? “For the retweets.” Nice.
Regardless of the reasons why bad intel gets tossed around, it’s our job as journalists to separate fact from fiction, clarify instead of confuse and give the readers the best version of reality that we can.
After the school shooting in Florida in which a 19-year-old man killed 17 people, two threads of information emerged that led to the spread of a large amount of misinformation: That this was one of 18 school shootings already in 2018 and that the shooter was attached to/motivated by a white supremacist group.
In the first case, headlines noting the “18 school shootings” appeared on various mainstream media outlets, including ABC news, Politico and CNBC. The source of this information isn’t noted in the headline, but later in some pieces, the authors cite “Everytown for Gun Safety,” a gun-control advocacy group that has tracked gun-related incidents since 2013.
The fact this information comes from a gun-control advocacy group should not automatically make it suspect, but it should be something a journalist notes as early as possible. This is the point of attributions: Let people know where the information originated so they can apply their own level of scrutiny to it.
What makes the situation more concerning is the operationalization of the term “school shooting,” especially when it is put forth in the wake of the incident at Stoneman Douglas. A look at the list includes ALL incidents in which a gun discharged on ANY school grounds. Authors who dug into this, both in mainstream and politically charged media outlets, outlined the ways in which this approach inflates the number in a way that would likely confuse readers. The Washington Post dissects the claim in perhaps the most thorough way here, noting that suicides at school and an accidental discharge of a firearm were included as “school shootings.”
Although the people at Everytown defend their decision to use this term and count these incidents as such, calling these incidents “school shootings” would likely undercut your credibility if you included this info in a story on the Florida incident.
This is the difference between factually stated information and accurately framed information. I could factually say that “thousands of lives end every day at schools across the country,” if I wanted to include class pets that go belly-up, bugs caught on no-pest strips and mice that get caught in traps before they could reach the cafeteria. However, if I posted it after the Florida shooting over a picture of grieving family members, it lacks accuracy and is framed in a misleading way.
Big tip: Know where your information comes from before citing it and make sure you are saying what you think you are saying before you say it.
The second thread, which noted the shooter’s ties to white supremacy, falls into the category of people who enjoy jerking the media’s chain. What makes these people feel compelled to do this is beyond me, but it’s something we need to keep in mind on big stories.
A story in the New York Times provided the following information about the shooter’s supposed attachment to a supremacist group:
On Thursday, Jordan Jereb, a leader of a white supremacist group based in North Florida, told The Associated Press that Mr. Cruz had joined the group, but later Mr. Jereb said that he did not know whether that was true. Sheriff Israel said he could not confirm any ties Mr. Cruz might have had to white nationalists.
A CNN story cites an Anti-Defamation League blog post that noted similar ties. Other sources also published this information, tying the shooter to a Florida-based racist organization.
With all of these top-tier organizations seemingly confirming this tie between the shooter and the group, it would appear to be as close to true as one could expect. The problem? It was pretty much the work of trolls and a general disinformation campaign, as Politico explained while unpacking the whole incident. Since then, many sources, including the Anti-Defamation League, have updated their stories to explain how they were tricked. However, a search of “Florida school shooting white supremacist” returns hundreds of headlines that seem to confirm that this connection is valid and proven.
One of the biggest problems came from the journalists’ relying on a single source of information, which turned out to be the work of trolls. As one of them cited in the Politico story noted online, “All it takes is a single article, and everyone else picks up the story.”
This is why the concept of independent verification is crucial in journalism. If everyone is citing the same source and no journalists work to confirm this through other sources, the whole thing is a house of cards. I watched this happen firsthand when a paper I was working at erroneously published information that a motorcyclist who had been critically injured in a crash had died.
Our competing paper had made a habit of cribbing information from us without citing us, instead relying on vague “sources said” attributions, and they ran the story of the guy’s death. The morning radio news outlets had been in a habit of “rip and read” where they pulled copy from the newspapers and read it as fact without citing the paper from which it came. Thus, you had two papers and a handful of radio stations saying the guy was dead, so everyone assumed it was true.
The man’s wife had been getting calls from people offering condolences and when she said he was alive, the people were telling her that, no, he was dead. They heard it on the radio or saw it in the paper. She was furious that the hospital and police officials would tell the media her husband was dead before they told her. No matter the protestations of the officials that the man was still alive, she didn’t believe it until she got to the hospital. Chaos ensued and every media outlet had to correct the story as everyone involved tried to figure out where the error came from. In the end, no one was fired, but it was ugly.
And that was a story based on an unintended error. When people are going to the lengths of these trolls to present information as truthful, we have to double our efforts.
Big tip: Get the information from sources you trust and then independently verify it before you publish.
And if you say, “But what happens if everyone else is publishing and I can’t get it? I don’t want to be late on the story!” realize that it’s better to be late than wrong.