So much was misreported in the first few hours after the shooting rampage at Washington’s Navy Yard.
Initial reports said that as many as three gunmen were involved. Then two. Then one. Then back to three. That four people were dead. But maybe six were. By midday, CNN had settled for “multiple.”
NBC and CBS identified a suspect by name. Except, as it turned out, he wasn’t the suspect. Others reported that police were responding to a second shooting at Bolling Air Force Base in Southeast Washington. But then they weren’t — there was no shooting there.
The erroneous reports weren’t concocted. In most cases, they came directly from police sources, and quickly bubbled up
through the modern media ecosystem, hopping from law enforcement scanners to Twitter to traditional media reports, all within minutes.
Reporters are no better than their sources, and as sources, police scanners aren’t very reliable. Although they are often the first public reports of a police or other public safety agency’s response, scanner conversations usually contain numerous uncertainties in the fog of breaking events.
Mistaken reporting on big, breaking events has become almost standard in the social media age. Immediately after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December, for example, reporters picked up scanner transmissions of a police raid on a suspect in a Hoboken, N.J., apartment. The raid prompted two widely reported but mistaken stories: that “the shooter” had barricaded himself inside the apartment and that his name was Ryan Lanza. In fact, Ryan Lanza wasn’t inside and wasn’t the suspect. The real shooter was his younger brother, Adam, dead at the scene in Connecticut.
Multiple news outlets tuned into scanners to report a “third” explosion during the Boston Marathon bombings last April. As it happened, the episode at the John F. Kennedy Library turned out to be a fire that was unrelated to the two blasts along the marathon route.
“We’ve gotten into a situation where the media’s standard operating procedure has become report first, confirm second and correct third,” said Dave Statter, a veteran news reporter who maintains a website that reports on police and emergency services.
“Anyone can listen to a scanner and tweet,” Satter says. “I’m afraid that in our haste to compete with social media to cover breaking news, we’ve forgotten that what makes us special is our skill in confirming information, not just reporting it.”