Why Outlets Often Get It Wrong In Breaking News Coverage

Coverage of the Navy Yard shootings has been intensive and sometimes inaccurate. David Folkenflik talks with Audie Cornish about the pressures at work in covering a breaking story.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As news traveled about the mass shootings at the Navy Yard, there were some missteps by the media. At first, some news outlets reported there were up to three different gunmen. So far, that's turned out not to be the case. There were reports that there was a second shooting at Bolling Air Force Base; that turned out not to be the case. Never mind the conflicting number of casualties reported as the tragedy unfolded.

NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik, was wary of the emerging information; and he posted this on his Twitter account: Reports amid breaking news are provisional and often wrong.

So does breaking news need this warning label? David is here to talk more. And David, let's talk about this warning label. Is it - I don't know if it's for the media, the news sources or the audience itself. But let's start with the new sources.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, I think that what you have is an incredible fragmentation of information. I mean, in a city like D.C., you have not only local and federal officials, but you also have military police converging on the site. You have first responders. You've got people at the hospitals. All of these folks have a couple of tiles here and there, of a much larger mosaic. It's unreasonable for journalists to expect that these sources are going to know everything in the immediate aftermath of a terrible incident like this, particularly one that is continuing to play out.

CORNISH: At the same time, that's our job, right? Reporters are supposed to run down and verify this information. Are we letting them off the hook?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, look - I mean, I think news organizations made a number of things that proved to be errors of fact. And they also proved to make some errors of judgment. WTTG, I believe - the Fox station down in Washington - picked things off the police scanner. That's, in some ways - sounds like it's a very innovative move. After all, you can hear the communications of law enforcement officials. But it's raw information. It's untested. And there is no, you know, scanner channel that says these are the things we're retracting, that we said earlier.

News organizations are expected to chase these things down. They're also expected to show some discretion, to make sure that unless it's pinned down, that they don't put it out on the air or online. And yet, that's a really hard thing to do in this day and age.

CORNISH: And then, let's talk about the audience, which more and more is participating in gathering the news, right? I mean, social media. Is it a problem in these breaking news situations, or an innovation?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I'd say both. I would say that through social media, what we used to think of as the audience - the public - is both gathering information, sharing information - sharing context, at times; also sharing a lot of misinformation, and relaying things that the news organizations or others have gotten wrong.

Sometimes, they're sharing a photograph from what turns out to be a completely different incident - as occurred today, apparently, in the New York Daily News. Sometimes they're sharing context that doesn't prove to be true, as happened - BuzzFeed did an entire article on the basis of the idea that the shooter was using an AR-15; it now it appears that was not the weapon that he used.

So the audience does all those things and at the same time, they expect instantaneous information not only on social media, but also from more conventional news organizations like the cable networks. And our expectations as an audience, has to be shifted a little bit. We have to know that in the aftermath of developing events, that those two things are incompatible - authoritativeness and immediacy; and that we can't expect news organizations to provide us exactly what happened right away. Those two things can't be knit together.

CORNISH: That's NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

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