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Navy Yard shooting: CNN really, really cautious on ID’ing suspect

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It was 3:54:15 p.m. CNN host Brooke Baldwin was talking with security expert Anthony Roman about how the authorities dealt with the suspect in today’s Navy Yard shooting. She cut off her guest and announced some news: “Forgive me as I’m checking my e-mail live on air. Can we go with this? OK. Forgive me, Anthony, but we’re going to go with this. I’m getting word from the control room. Washington FBI field office has told our correspondent Pamela Brown that the dead Navy Yard shooting suspect has been identified and fingerprinted as 34-year-old Aaron Alexis…a military contractor from Texas.”

News, yes. Breaking news, no.

The name Aaron Alexis had been kicking around the Internet for what seemed like a Twitter eternity. Among the news outlets that “beat” CNN to the story were these:

Given that other outlets reported the name, and that they subsequently turned out to have been right, what could CNN possibly have been waiting for? The Erik Wemple Blog put that question to CNN today. Spokeswoman Edie Emery responded that the network didn’t go with story until “the FBI told CNN the name on the record.”

Revolutionary. Had CBS News and NBC News followed that prescription earlier in the day, they wouldn’t have pushed the bogus name of a suspect into the public realm. NBC News attributed that name to “sources.” A tweet from a CBS News staffer didn’t contain details on sourcing. NBC chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd put this explanation on Twitter:

Inquiries to CBS News as to what went wrong fetched no substantive response.

Todd’s reference to “multiple sources,” however, marks a return to breaking-news breakdowns. Last December, NBC News was among various media outlets that relied on various law enforcement sources — none of them on the record — for reporting that Ryan Lanza, not actual culprit Adam Lanza, had perpetrated the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. In that episode, NBC News’s ace reporter Pete Williams learned that authorities had released a bulletin to various law-enforcement agencies fingering Ryan Lanza. Not content with that information, Williams checked with other sources before mis-reporting the name. He had plenty of company, as other news outlets fell for the information peddled by multiple law-enforcement sources and named the wrong person.

Waiting for an on-the-record source would have cured the problem. Yet Williams defended the scramble for the name: The Sandy Hook killings took place on a Friday; it wasn’t until Sunday that Connecticut police formally released the shooter’s name. “I think you can’t wait. People want to know who did this. That’s an obvious and logical question,” Williams told the Erik Wemple Blog at the time.

True that people want to know “who did this.” But understanding “who did this” goes way beyond a name, which is an empty vessel of information. Even if NBC News and CBS News had had the identity right earlier today, their tweets ID’ing the suspect still would have been useless, for they merely threw out a first name and a last name and little more. What good is that?

The real competition lies in the portrait. Who’ll be the first to publish a bona fide look at the life of another mass murderer?