If the stakes involved hadn't been so tragic, the media coverage of the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard might have been amusing. It certainly provided a sense of déjà vu, in more ways than one. Once again, we had the specter of a mass murder unfolding in real time on our television screens. Once again, we had the media report "facts" that turned out to be false. And once again, the usual suspects climbed onto the usual hobby horses, only to have them collapse underneath them as the real facts emerged.
Now, some confusion during Monday's events is understandable. The police don't tend to offer a lot of information about a live shooting scene while they are busy attempting to stop the shooter, so the media turns to secondary sources. Witnesses don't see the whole picture, and often offer contradictory information that later gets corrected or withdrawn. At different points in the crisis, the media reported that there were one, two, and three shooters involved — and even a second location, with reports of shots fired at an Air Force base that turned out to be false. The police took hours in tracking down the other supposed shooters to discover that they had no connection to the crime.
Other confused reports are less explicable. After the police had secured the crime scene, both CBS and NBC identified the shooter as Rollie Chance, which immediately flashed out to viewers and readers across all platforms. Unfortunately for CBS, NBC, and Rollie Chance, the report turned out to be wrong. Chance dropped his identification in the panic to seek safety in the building. Someone just assumed that the ID belonged to the now-dead perpetrator and passed that information to the media, who picked it up and ran with it, only to shame-facedly retract the report later.
Veteran media watchers know better than to rely on these early reports from crisis situations. The media has its limits, and mistakes will be made, for which some tolerance must be extended as the cost of getting the kind of moment-by-moment reporting — although identifying a suspect by name and getting it wrong goes beyond the tolerance point, especially for the wronged person's family and friends. Discretion, in all senses of the word, demands that analysts wait for facts to be clearly established before drawing conclusions about such events. That includes the NRA, which took some criticism for not responding immediately to an event that had yet to be clarified.
If only everyone exercised that kind of discretion. Unfortunately, demagogues and activists rarely apply discretion or even common sense when these opportunities present themselves. Sloppy reporting helped fuel two embarrassing leaps to conclusions at major media outlets, while the correction to the previously reported false claim initially got buried.
During the crisis, the media began reporting that the shooter, who ended up murdering 12 people in the Washington Navy Yard, was using an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. The AR-15 had been used in other mass shootings, which may be why some start off assuming that any mass shooting involves a semi-automatic rifle in general, and the AR-15 specifically. (The AR-15 and its knockoffs are among the most popular firearms in its class, with as many as 3.7 million privately owned in the U.S.)
However, in this case the assumption proved incorrect. On Tuesday morning, the FBI confirmed that the shooter used three weapons, none of which were an AR-15 or even a semi-automatic rifle. Instead, law enforcement found two pistols, apparently taken from victims of the massacre, and a shotgun that the assailant brought with him to start the shooting spree. CNN, however, initially chose to note that fact within a profile of how the AR-15 has been used in other mass shootings, oddly burying the lead.
Too bad that some people, including hosts on CNN itself, didn't bother to wait for that information before using the poor reporting to reinforce their own agendas. Mike Lupica at the New York Daily News wrote an entire column about the evil AR-15 to argue for an assault-weapons ban that wouldn't have stopped this massacre. He called the weapon the rifle "for the sport of killing humans," which is utterly mystifying considering the vast number of AR-15s in private hands and the rarity of this "sport." The Daily News ran a huge front-page headline that claimed "SAME GUN — DIFFERENT SLAY," which as Politico's Dylan Byers noted after the FBI's statement, "sort of complicates things … for the New York Daily News." Well, only if it takes its credibility seriously.
CNN's Monday night lineup offered a couple of more pratfalls on journalistic credibility. Anderson Cooper's screen-graphics crew repeatedly asserted that the shooter had "legally purchased an AR-15 shotgun" while Cooper and his guests discussed the shooting. That reporting was based on nothing at all; it later was established that the shooter had once rented an AR-15, but was not in possession of it at the time of the shooting. That pales in comparison to that evening's show with Piers Morgan, who repeatedly insisted that the AR-15 had been used in the crime, arguing for a new assault-weapons ban because of it, and shouting down his guests when they attempted to disagree.
The next day, Morgan shifted his argument to this: "Lots of confusion over exactly what guns Wash Navy Yard shooter used. But do you think it matters to the victims?" It mattered to Morgan the night before, and it matters to those pushing an assault-weapons ban, some of whom — Vice President Joe Biden among them — argue that people should buy shotguns instead of AR-15s for home protection. Had Morgan waited to launch his latest jeremiad for gun control, perhaps he could have crafted an argument that actually fit the facts.
The NRA wisely stuck to its policy of waiting at least 24 hours before commenting on a shooting. Perhaps the rest of the media might consider adopting the same policy.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- The 11 worst fast food restaurants in America
- 7 things the world's happiest people do every day
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- Why are so many parents being arrested?
- 9 things you probably didn't know about the moon
- The biggest lesson Obama failed to learn from Bush
- What I learned from totally unplugging and shutting up for three days
- Why America is duty bound to help Iraqi Christians
- Israel has only two choices: Eliminate the Palestinians or make peace
- What if The Purge was real?
Subscribe to the Week