Lest we think that Redditors, tweeters, and bloggers have a monopoly on rushing to judgment when tragedies are unfolding, a pair of network news stations today provided a reminder that premature reports are as old as the news itself.
NBC and CBS both named the same suspect in the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard shooting on Monday afternoon, then retracted their reports. NBC's Chuck Todd deleted his tweet naming the alleged shooter:
NBC News: we are now NOT reporting name of shooter; retracting that report. deleting those tweets-- Chuck Todd (@chucktodd) September 16, 2013
Todd went on to explain how the confusion arose:
The confusion over the suspect's name comes from conflicting law enforcement sources. That's why we pulled back.-- Chuck Todd (@chucktodd) September 16, 2013
The confusion over the shooter name had to do with an I.D. card found near dead gunman; What led to bad initial reporting.-- Chuck Todd (@chucktodd) September 16, 2013
Law enforcement officials now believe the I.D. card found was dropped during chaos; Still trying to I.D. dead gunman-- Chuck Todd (@chucktodd) September 16, 2013
More on the I.D. confusion of gunman, @PeteWilliamsNBC reporting I.D. found near dead gunman was badge gunman may have used to get into bldg-- Chuck Todd (@chucktodd) September 16, 2013
Deleting tweets doesn't undo the damage. That said, Todd deserves at least some credit for continuing to report and tweet about how the mistake transpired. (NBC is now reporting a different name as that of the alleged shooter.)
Twitter and Reddit users have taken a lot of flak in recent years for leaping to conclusions as to the identities of alleged mass killing suspects, among other things. As I've noted in the past, though, professional journalists are often right there with them when it comes to factual missteps.
This is not to say that no one should ever say anything until it's been confirmed by police. Of course in the fog of breaking news there will be instances when journalists and others report on hearsay that is not borne out once the fog lifts. Even police and other authorities do this sometimes, although that's less common, since they tend not to have monetary or professional incentives to spout off before they've double-checked their facts.
But there's a difference between saying, "we're hearing that there may have been more than one shooter," and saying, "we're hearing that the shooter's name was X." The difference is that the former can be walked back without leaving anyone's life ruined in its wake.