Both CBS News and NBC News misidentified Navy chief petty officer Rollie Chance as a suspect in the Washington Navy Yard shooting during the early, tense and confused moments yesterday afternoon. Both media outlets quickly retracted the information.
The error is the latest for the media, which has reported wrong information in the heat of unfolding mass shooting situations previously. Back in April, CNN, the AP and Fox News all reported that a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing had been arrested when the police were still in pursuit. And before that the wrong person had been identified as the gunman in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
In this case, CBS News’ John Miller reported Chance’s name just before 1pm ET. NBC News followed shortly after. Of course, now we know that the gunman was 34-year-old Aaron Alexis, a former Navy reservist who was working for a military subcontractor and, according to reports, showed signs of mental illness. According to The New York Times, co-workers and others who knew Alexis didn’t see any signs that he was capable of this horror. However, the latest details collected by The Washington Post shows that Alexis had been cited repeatedly for insubordination, disorderly conduct, lateness and other infractions both with the law and the military.
“The new information added to the emerging portrait of a man with layers of contradictions, who lived for a time in a bungalow in the woods near a Buddhist temple in Fort Worth, where he occasionally joined Thai immigrants in meditation, but was also arrested after firing a bullet through his upstairs neighbor’s floor and was then asked to leave his Fort Worth apartment,” the newspaper says.
Other reports say that Alexis used Chance’s ID, which is what caused the confusion. At least 13 people are dead after the attack, including Alexis. The motive is still being investigated.
To put a stop to this pattern of erroneous reporting from major media outlets, USA Today suggests that reporters wait for a second confirmation on information before taking to the airwaves. Moreover, the paper says reporters shouldn’t be reporting from information they’re getting from police scanners, which is the platform for the exchange of data that can quickly prove to be false as more data is gathered.
“The recipes for these debacles is pretty basic. Take one high-profile news story, add a supercompetitve news landscape, then throw in anonymous sources without firsthand information,” the article says.
As long as people crave news as quickly as possible, there will be errors. But the media can become the place for the facts if only they would each individually take the initiative to slow down. Everyone wants to be first, but there should be more concern for being right.