The AtlanticWire's Alexander Abad-Santos has a really nice rundown of all the conflicting information coming out of Orlando, where an FBI agent shot and killed one of Tamerlan Tsarnaev's friends yesterday morning during an interview that may or may not have included the man's confession to an unsolved triple homicide from 2011. Go read the full thing, but I just wanted to highlight one nugget from it because of how well it illustrates just how unreliable loosely sourced reports can be in the immediate aftermath of something like this.
Here's the key part from the Associated Press story on Ibragim Todashev death (emphasis mine):
Three law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said initially that Todashev had lunged at the FBI agent with a knife. However, two of those officials said later in the day it was no longer clear what had happened. The third official had not received any new information.
The knife detail was also reported by NBC News and ABC News; the New York Times had it as "a knife or a pipe or something." Given the nature of the reporting we obviously can't tell if everyone's listening to the same unidentified "law enforcement officials," but the changing account offered to the AP illustrates a pair of related lessons that are worth remembering for anyone consuming news: 1) unnamed sources, even when they're speaking honestly, don't necessarily have correct information; and 2) unless the source was actually in the room, his or her information is at best coming secondhand, and more likely third- or fourth-hand.
So remember that when NBC News, for instance, writes a lede like this:
Dead Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev and another man — who was killed by the FBI on Wednesday — murdered three people in Massachusetts after a drug deal went wrong in 2011, law enforcement sources tell NBC News.
It may be technically accurate—three sources may have told the network that—but it nonetheless overstates the reality of the situation. At best, those law enforcement sources now believe that Tsarnaev and his friend committed the murders, but even if that's the case it doesn't necessarily mean that the FBI at large does—or that they can now prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.
I'm not saying that reporters should never use unnamed police sources to color in the details of the very vague official picture. (If nothing else, it's good to have the FBI on record—or least as close to on-the-record as possible—for when the story inevitably changes later). I am saying that we—myself, included—should all do a better job of making it painfully clear when we're dealing with allegations instead of facts.
I realize I'm not breaking new ground here, but the point probably can't be said enough, especially when so many people consume their news in 140-or-less-character bites. Anyway, go read the AW piece, which also gets into the question of whether Todashev really was about to sign a confession as was alleged yesterday by Mr. Unnamed Law Enforcement Official.