ABC News offered a predictable explanation last Friday when forced to account for a terrible case of mistaken identity. Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross had speculated that alleged Aurora, Colo., theater shooter was a tea party member. Not the case. In a note on the screw-up, ABC News said:
Editor’s Note: An earlier ABC News broadcast report suggested that a Jim Holmes of a Colorado Tea Party organization might be the suspect, but that report was incorrect. ABC News and Brian Ross apologize for the mistake, and for disseminating that information before it was properly vetted.
Here we go again was the nearly audible groan from people who care about good journalism. And again and again and again, as it turns out. Just to let Ross know that he’s following in a storied tradition:
* CNN and Fox News both reported and the Huffington Post tweeted that the Supreme Court had knocked down the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. It hadn’t. Safe to say that those networks disseminated that information before it was properly vetted.
* Darren Rovell, then of CNBC, had written about businesses suffering on account of the NBA lockout. “Henry,” an escort entrepreneur in New York, told Rovell that sales were down 30 percent. As it turned out, Henry was a bored teenager who was having some fun with Rovell. ”He duped me,” confessed Rovell in early June. Since there was little evidence that Rovell had tried to confirm the story beyond e-mailing with the source, it’s probably fair to say that he disseminated that information before it was properly vetted.
* National Review Online published an item busting Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren for plagiarism in her 2005 book “All Your Worth.” Further investigation determined that the truth lay 180 degrees in the opposite direction: It was Warren who was plagiarized. NRO writer Katrina Trinko went with the allegation before getting input from Warren, so she clearly disseminated that information before it was properly vetted.
* Politico posted an item on how Barack Obama hadn’t acknowledged using composite characters in his book “Dreams From My Father.” He had. The post, which came not long after a Vanity Fair excerpt from a new Obama biography by David Maraniss hit the Internet, didn’t take account of information long on the public record, making it safe to conclude that the site had disseminated that information before it was properly vetted.
* Politico passed on a false and baseless tweet that the New York Times had paid for interviews in Colombia in furtherance of its work on the Secret Service prostitution scandal. Its “story” on the matter got some traction on the Huffington Post, though it was posted before it had received a confirm-or-deny response from the New York Times. Appears that Politico disseminated that information before it was properly vetted.
* These news sites picked up a story about a Polish dentist extracting an entire set of teeth from her ex-boyfriend as an act of revenge: Fox News, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Huffington Post, Yahoo! News, MSN.com, the New York Post and the New York Daily News. An investigation by MSNBC.com exposed the story as a hoax, yielding the conclusion that those outlets had disseminated that information before it was properly vetted.
*The Erik Wemple Blog botched a post on the National Enquirer’s coffin photos of Whitney Houston. Sources at the blog indicated that it disseminated that information before it was properly vetted.
* CBSSports.com aggregated a story from OnwardState.com that Penn State football coach Joe Paterno died on Jan. 21. The Huffington Post grabbed onto the story, which wasn’t true: Paterno didn’t die till the next day, meaning that the outlets had disseminated that information before it was properly vetted.
1) Boy, the Huffington Post is quick on bogus-news aggregation.
2) Vet information before disseminating.
3) Prepare for more of this stuff. You might suppose that the Supreme Court reporting miscues would have shrouded all of TV news in a hypercautious freeze for months, yet there Ross sat, speculating about the political ties of an alleged mass murderer.
Competitive pressures on big stories have a way of stifling best practices. What Tommy Craggs of Deadspin told me after the Paterno incident sounds even more convincing now: “This will always happen when the incentives are lined up in this way.”