Stories About Illinois Police Officer's Death Underscore Need To Attribute : Memmos Standards & Practices Editor Mark Memmott writes occasional notes about the issues journalists encounter and the way NPR handles them. They often expand on topics covered in the Ethics Handbook.
NPR logo Stories About Illinois Police Officer's Death Underscore Need To Attribute

Stories About Illinois Police Officer's Death Underscore Need To Attribute

A look back at our coverage of what happened to Illinois police Lt. Charles Gliniewicz, who authorities now say killed himself, highlights the importance of attributing information and not getting ahead of ourselves when stories are breaking and investigations are under way.

Here are lines from five stories we aired or posted in the first few days after the news broke:

– Gliniewicz "was shot to death in the line of duty on Tuesday — while chasing three suspects on foot."

– "Investigators acknowledge they still only have vague descriptions of the three men Fox Lake police officer Charles Joseph Gliniewicz was trying to apprehend when he was shot and killed Tuesday morning."

– "Lt. Gliniewicz was pursuing those suspects–two white men and a black man– on foot when he lost radio contact with a dispatcher."

– "Before he was shot and killed Tuesday morning, Lt Charles Joseph Gliniewicz told dispatchers he was pursing three suspicious men on foot — two of them white and the third, black."

– "The officer radioed to dispatchers that he was going to check on suspicious activity around 8 a.m. local time in the community of Fox Lake, Lake County sheriff's office spokesman Christopher Covelli said at a news conference. The officer, who has not yet been identified, then said he was in a 'foot pursuit,' before losing contact. Covelli said responding officers arrived and found the officer injured from a gunshot wound and without his service weapon. The officer died at the scene."

The first three examples flatly say that Gliniewicz was chasing suspects when he was shot. The last two examples make it clear that Gliniewicz said he was in pursuit of three suspects.

Examples 1-3 skipped a key fact — that it was Gliniewicz who reported he was chasing three suspects. He was the source for that information. He was a single source. In hindsight, the attribution was critical.

Two other phrases in our early reports are interesting to think about now: "Shot to death" and "shot and killed." Gliniewicz was shot. He did die. However, those phrases make it sound as if someone else did the shooting. If we had known he took his own life, we wouldn't have used them. We couldn't have known that, of course. But there's a case to be made that we should have thought through the possibilities and said "before he was shot and died" or some other phrasing that didn't include the word "killed."