Why you should take reports from the scene of a massacre with a grain of salt.

Media criticism.
Dec. 3 2008 5:47 PM

The Fog of Breaking News

Why you should take reports from the scene of a massacre with a grain of salt.

Indian policemen at the Chattrapati Shivaji Railway terminus. Click image to expand.
Indian policemen at the Chattrapati Shivaji Railway terminus

Fast-breaking news is usually served broken.

I offer that insight as an observation, not a criticism. As one who has scribbled conflicting eyewitness accounts from a fast-moving story in my reporter's notebook, I have nothing but gratitude and sympathy for the boots on the ground who produce the hot dispatches readers crave—even if many of those hot dispatches turn out to be crap.

The latest example of crap masquerading as authoritative news comes to us from the pens and microphones of the reporters covering the Mumbai massacre: Reading the first wave of Mumbai stories against the second reveals how rough the first rough draft of history can be. Respected, major media outlets produced contradictory accounts of the carnage and its aftermath.

It would be easy to blame the opening inaccuracies on the discombobulating nature of the terrorist assault, or to accuse a naïve Indian press of leading the Western press astray, or to damn Indian government officials for steering reporters wrong. But it ain't so. Breaking news—especially complex breaking news—has always defied the best reporters' attempts to get the story both first and right.

For instance, immediately following the 9/11 attacks, all sorts of bunk about the identities of hijackers, explosives on the George Washington Bridge, and a car bombing at the State Department turned up in the Boston Globe, on CNN, on the New York Times Web site, and on CBS. The press foisted similarly shaky stories onto their clientele when reporting the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. As Slate contributor David Greenberg catalogs in his book Nixon's Shadow, the press made serious errors in Watergate coverage that were never corrected.

Should reporters publish only when they've nailed the story six ways to Sunday? Not to endorse journalistic malpractice, but as long as they don't intend to deceive and believe what they publish, I'd rather read their imperfect reports from the scene of breaking news than wait for a book on the subject. "Journalism in lieu of dissertation," to use Edgar Allan Poe's phrase, is the light artillery we can use now.

That said, the press could do a better job of cleaning up after the fact by acknowledging that their frantic chasing of the story also resulted in the publication of some … crap. (As long as we're on the subject of how the press should clean up behind itself, see former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent's 2004 column about "rowbacks.")

At the very least, newspapers and networks could routinely warn readers of the provisional nature of their hot, breaking reports and advise all to keep pinches of salt handy. Reporter Rhys Blakely of the Times of London did just that in his Dec. 2 Mumbai story, indicating why so many contradictory statements were coming out of the interrogations of captured terrorist Azam Amir Kasab. Blakely writes:

It is thought that as many as 15 Indian officials are sitting in on the militant's interrogation, and many are leaking their interpretations of his responses to the media.

So, with that throat-clearing completed, here's an assortment of misinformation, quarreling facts, and bunk published by the world press about the Mumbai rampage. (Note: the spelling of the Kasab's name varies from publication to publication.)

What nationality were the killers?

Two British-born Pakistanis were among eight gunmen seized by Indian commandos who stormed buildings to free hostages, Vilasrao Deshmukh, the chief minister of Mumbai, reportedly said.
Daily Telegraph, Nov. 28, 2008

A top Indian official, Maharashtra state chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, said there was "no authentic information" to suggest that any British citizens were involved.
Daily Mail, Dec. 1, 2008

Indian authorities said today that all 10 of the terrorists who attacked the city of Mumbai last Wednesday were from Pakistan.
ABCNews.com, Dec. 1, 2008

The [Anti-Terror Squad] officer also disputed Indian press assertions that the attackers were Pakistani, saying they were of many nationalities.
New York Times, Dec. 1, 2008

How did they plan their assault?

After the [terrorists'] training was over, they were sent to Mumbai for a "short internship," [Azam Amir] Kasab is believed to have told the cops. This was the period when the accused did the [reconnaissance] of the city and even went to the five star hotels (Taj and Oberoi), the sources said.
Times of India, Dec. 1, 2008

Investigators are probing whether the information came by way of local help, or whether a separate team of militants carried out a reconnaissance mission from abroad to the financial center on India's west coast to scope out targets and prepare the attacks.
Wall Street Journal, Dec. 2, 2008

How well did the terrorists know the Taj Mahal hotel layout?

Elite Indian commandos spoke of fierce battles through the maze of corridors and 565 rooms of the 105-year-old Taj Mahal hotel in which the terrorists had a better knowledge of the building's layout than security forces.
Financial Times, Nov. 28, 2008

"I do not think they knew the hotel inside out," [said City Police Commissioner Hassan Gafoor].
Washington Post, Dec. 3, 2008

Who were the terrorists targeting?

Azam Amir Kasab, 21, a Pakistani national, claimed the terror strikes, which left nearly 200 dead, were intended to kill as many as 5,000 people and that he and his fellow militants were ordered to target whites—especially Britons and Americans. The claims were made in what a police source said was a transcript of his questioning.
The Timesof London, Dec. 1, 2008

Police believe attacks at the Leopold cafe, popular with tourists, and at CST station, may have been diversions to provide cover as other gang members stormed their two main targets—Mumbai's two luxury hotels, the Taj Mahal and Trident-Oberoi.
The Age (Melbourne) Dec. 1, 2008

"It seemed like they were in a hurry," [Leopold Café owner Farhang Jehani] said. "It was as if they wanted to shoot as many people as they could even though this was not their main target. Their motive might have been to divert the police, who have a station across the street, to keep them occupied as they headed to the Taj hotel."
Washington Post, Dec. 1, 2008

Did the marauders intend to escape?

[Captured terrorist] Kasab has allegedly revealed that their plan was to take hostages at the Taj hotel, Oberoi Hotel and Nariman House and then use them to escape from the city, [a senior police official] added.
Press Trust of India, Nov. 29, 2008

The sole Mumbai gunman captured alive has told police he was trained in Pakistan and ordered to "kill until the last breath," according to a leaked account of his interrogation.
The Timesof London, Dec. 1, 2008

[The terrorists] also intended to escape Mumbai after the attacks, but officials say it might have been a formality. One Indian official said that he believes the terrorists knew well in advance that they were on a one-way mission.
ABCNews.com, Dec. 1, 2008

The terrorists thought they would come out alive and had an escape route, added [gunman] Kasav.
Daily Mail, Dec. 1, 2008

"Their plan was just to cause maximum damage and return with hostages protecting themselves," [said Mumbai Police Joint Commissioner for Crime Rakesh Maria].
The Times, Dec. 2, 2008

Another GPS unit recovered in Mumbai suggested that the terrorists planned to return to the [hijacked fishing] vessel if they survived the attacks, [Rakesh] Maria said."
Wall Street Journal, Dec. 2, 2008

How did the killers sustain themselves for three days?

[T]he militants carried bundles of Indian rupees, packets of raisins and nuts to keep their energy high. …
Wall Street Journal, Dec. 2, 2008

Officials said drug paraphernalia, including syringes, was recovered from the scene of the attacks, which killed almost 200 people. ...
"We found injections containing traces of cocaine and LSD left behind by the terrorists and later found drugs in their blood," said one official.
"There was also evidence of steroids, which isn't uncommon in terrorists."
Daily Telegraph, Dec. 2, 2008

Can you trust anything attributed to Azam Amir Kasab?

An officer of the Anti-Terror Squad branch in Mumbai, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media, said [Kasab] had given inconsistent answers to questioning, sometimes saying there were 10 attackers, sometimes more than 10.
New York Times, Dec. 1, 2008

Only 10 militants have been identified, but, according to a private TV channel, Azam Amir Qasab apparently confirmed there were 15 attackers.
BBC.com, Dec. 1, 2008

Most of what Mr. [Azam Amir] Kasab has said so far has proven accurate, [Rakesh Maria] said in the interview.
Wall Street Journal, Dec. 2, 2008

How badly was Kasab wounded?

The government has not allowed outside access to the captive, who is said to have identified himself as Ajmal Amir Qasab, a Pakistani citizen who was wounded in the leg and was being treated at a military hospital.
New York Times, Dec. 1, 2008

The terrorist [Kasab] was taken to the hospital after he was hit in the hand by a bullet in the early stages of the assault on Mumbai last week.
The Australian, Dec. 2, 2008

"[Kasab] had some aberrations and bruises on his upper and lower limbs. He did not have any bullet injury and did not require surgery. He was given treatment on the spot and there has been no active treatment on him after that," said Ravi Ranade, dean of B Y L Nair hospital.
IndianExpress.com, Dec. 2, 2008

Did Kasab want to live or die?

After being captured, Kasab was taken ... to Nair hospital where he was treated for minor injuries. He reportedly told medical staff: "I do not want to die. Please put me on saline."
The Guardian, Nov. 30, 2008

"He kept saying, 'Please kill me. I do not want to live,' " said Kishore C. Bhatt, 56, a hospital volunteer who was there that night. "He was on a stretcher about three to four feet away from me. He was injured. His face had no expression, but his voice sounded angry."
Washington Post, Dec. 3, 2008

******

Poe spoke for me when he wrote, "the lightness of the artillery should not degenerate into pop-gunnery." Shoot your mouth off at slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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