Television journalism today proved that it learned little from last month’s Supreme Court mishap. ABC News’s Brian Ross, in a rush to break some news on the Aurora, Colo., shooting rampage, incorrectly associated the suspect in the case with the Tea Party. Ross said the following today on “Good Morning America”:
Brian Ross: There is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado, page on the Colorado Tea Party site as well, talking about him joining the Tea Party last year. Now we don’t know if this is the same Jim Holmes — but this is Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado.
Later, on ABC News Special Report, Ross started backtracking or, in the words of the ABC News PR shop, “clarified the reporting”:
We don’t know much about him. An earlier report that I had was incorrect that he was connected with the Tea Party in fact that’s a different Jim Holmes. He was not connected to the Tea Party and what we do know about him is he is a 24-year-old white male who went to Colorado for a PHD.
ABC News has posted this text on its site:
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.
The mistake: Unforgivable, regrettable, amateurish, miserable. “MEDIA BIAS? WHAT MEDIA BIAS?” asks an e-mail promoting a blog post on the conservative NewsBusters site about the mistake. Though ABC News won’t answer any questions at this point, it’s possible that Ross was basing his conjecture on a single Web page for the Colorado Tea Party Patriots.
What Ross failed to understand is that speculation about the Aurora shooter is a journalistic felony. You can speculate on air about Mitt Romney’s motives for not releasing his tax returns; you can speculate on air about whether the heat wave will pass; you cannot speculate on air about the identity of an alleged mass murderer. Especially when: 1) You’re rolling the suspect into a political overlay by mentioning the Tea Party movement; and 2) According to a quick online search, there are six “James Holmes” listed in Denver and 21 in the state of Colorado; error likelihood for such a common name is high.
The correction: Quick, responsible, complete and honest. Credit ABC News for cleaning up its gooey mess.