When “confirmed” doesn’t mean “true”

Was there a second shooter? Was there a shooting at the Rideau Centre? Was the victim dead? Was the gunman carrying a rifle or a shotgun? What was the name of the shooter? What was the name of the victim? Was it the sergeant-at-arms who finally took the gunman down? Was this an act of terrorism?

Throughout the day on Wednesday, these questions were asked, answered and in some cases those answers were retracted by the media. It’s the nature of the beast when dealing with a breaking emergency situation like this — nobody really knows the answers at first, even the authority figures you normally go to for those answers.

What does “confirmed” mean?

After these kinds of events, there are inevitably media criticism think pieces telling us that we need to verify facts before publishing them, that we can’t repeat rumours that are unconfirmed, that getting it right is more important than getting it first.

But those kinds of pieces always annoy me, because they assume there’s some standard of correctness that a piece of information can achieve, and once it has it’s guaranteed to be true.

As we learned in Ottawa, it’s a lot more complicated than that. It was the Ottawa police that said there was an incident at or near the Rideau Centre shopping mall, only to retract that statement later in the day. It was a federal cabinet minister who tweeted on his verified account that the victim in the shooting had died, only to later walk that statement back. In the end, one of those events turned out to be false and the other true.

But in both cases they were referred to as “confirmed” by the media. When those confirmations were walked back, the power of the word diminished.

Attribute everything

As Craig Silverman (the local expert in media getting things wrong) would say, an important question to ask a source when compiling information is “How do you know this?” A source may seem official because they’re a police officer or an official spokesperson or a company CEO or an expert in the field, but that doesn’t necessarily mean their information is rock-solid.

In emergency situations, asking those kinds of questions is a luxury, and often impractical. But one thing that is neither is attribution, even when the information appears to be fully verified and unquestionably accurate.

Strictly speaking, the statement “Ottawa police posted on Twitter that there was an incident at the Rideau Centre” is correct, even though there was no shooting there. It’s not just about covering your ass; it provides a publicly verifiable trail of information, and breeds trust in the news outlet while it breeds skepticism in the news.

There’s a tendency for news organizations to want to seem authoritative, to say things like “we have independently confirmed“. But that statement is meaningless if the confirmation comes from the same anonymous source as the initial report, and just as likely to be wrong.

On the other hand, there’s a different tendency to be vague when referring to competitors, to refer to vague “reports”. This can give the illusion of authority, even when all the reports out there inevitably come from the same source.

These things cause facts to spread, and the more they spread, the more people believe them to be true.

Show your work

One way to avoid this is simple: everything should be attributed where possible. And that’s not just good advice in reporting on breaking news, it’s good advice in general. It may not look cool, but I’m more likely to trust a report that explains how it knows what it knows.

In math class, we’re asked to show our work, to prevent us from using calculators to find the answers to problems or simply asserting the conclusion without understanding how it got there. We should ask the same of journalists.

Rather than criticize the media with the benefit of hindsight, let’s use Wednesday’s events as an example of what to do. When the name of the alleged gunman came out from a CBS News report, many Canadian media attributed it to them. If CBS got it wrong, then we’d know the Canadian media got it wrong too, and there wouldn’t be “conflicting reports”.

I personally think more caution should be exercised before naming someone in a case like this — the media got the shooter’s name wrong in Newtown, remember, and getting this kind of thing wrong, attribution or no attribution, could have serious consequences for the person named, his or her family and people who know them. But if it has to be done, attributing it is the way to go.

That way, we can better evaluate the credibility of information, and just as importantly, so can other media, so we can all separate what’s been “confirmed” from what’s just been repeated. And we can give the audience as clear a picture of the facts as possible, even if the facts are murky.

I think, in times of emergency especially, that’s the least we can do. And kudos to those journalists who did exactly that.

13 thoughts on “When “confirmed” doesn’t mean “true”

  1. Dilbert

    The nature of modern media is speed. Speed is where it’s at, first with the story, first to call the election, and yes, firm to “confirm” all sorts of things… Speed is king over everything, and much of the media covering live events or “breaking news” tend to sink into wild speculation and coverage that is spotty at best. The shift came a few years ago, when most went from just reporting a story to having panels and talking heads and “opinions makers” liberally mixed in and muddying the waters even further.

    More recently, we add in the social media / instant message / man on the street “what I saw” live interviews which are often as misleading. Tweeting things and then walking them back (or just outrightly deleting the tweet) seems to be about par for the course these days.

    For guys like you working in the newspaper world, you only face this issue once a day, near deadline. Otherwise, the “speed” issue isn’t the same for you. You don’t have the need for the same speed except as that print deadline approaches.

    All reports I have seen suggest that CBC did a very good job in coverage and didn’t sink too far into the speculative mire.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      The shift came a few years ago

      It came long before that, with the rise of 24-hour news networks and talk radio.

      For guys like you working in the newspaper world, you only face this issue once a day, near deadline.

      I don’t even work on the newspaper anymore. I work for a smartphone app. Speed is most certainly an issue there.

      Reply
      1. Dilbert

        ” I work for a smartphone app. Speed is most certainly an issue there.”

        Okay then… how about you give us some examples here… how long between the event starting and smart hone coverage? How long before the guys name was on the smart phone? Was any false information posted?

        Does fast for newspaper people mean “less than a full day”? What sort of speed did the phone app update, considering this was probably the biggest news story in Canada for a while…

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          how long between the event starting and smart hone coverage?

          Pretty quickly. Take into account the time it takes for news to break, for that news to get to journalists and for the severity of that news to become clear, and a story goes up usually within half an hour. I don’t have the time the first story was posted.

          How long before the guys name was on the smart phone?

          Pretty quickly after it was confirmed.

          Was any false information posted?

          Depends how you define “false information”. There’s always information that goes out that turns out to be incorrect. There was an update about the soldier having died that was based on a Jason Kenney tweet, that had to be retracted because Kenney backed away from it.

          Does fast for newspaper people mean “less than a full day”?

          Yes.

          What sort of speed did the phone app update, considering this was probably the biggest news story in Canada for a while…

          Updates on the smartphone take effect immediately after they’re posted.

          Reply
  2. Sidney Margles

    You are 100% correct. Instead of the rush to be “first” and sometimes wrong, the reporters of today should learn the basics about giving credit where it is due, or in the case of an error, saying the source and how it occurred.

    .

    Reply
  3. Steve

    In the end one delusional soul with a hunting rifle tragically killed an unarmed soldier and got himself killed in theprocess.
    And that’s it . . .
    Nothing has changed.
    This isn’t 911 despite competing medias having a hard time treating it differently as they compete to remain relevant.

    Reply
  4. Michel

    I think it is very telling when, despite all the problems that go with covering such an event, many serious American media outlets, like MotherJones, showered praise on Peter Mansbridge and the CBC for its very professional coverage of yesterday’s tragedy. Though we are looking over the slippery slope, let us hope we refrain from embarking on the downward trip that the American media has been on for many years. Just another argument against budget cuts at the CBC.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      many serious American media outlets, like MotherJones, showered praise on Peter Mansbridge and the CBC for its very professional coverage of yesterday’s tragedy.

      I counted two, including MotherJones. I also think the CBC did a good job, but I worry about overpraising them. Their live news feed online identified the shooter by name based only on a single CBS report, which seems like a gamble on something very important.

      I also got the impression from MJ that their opinions on the CBC coverage had as much to do with justifying some preconceived notions about the differences between the United States and the rest of the developed world. They seemed to describe this as a Canada-vs-U.S. thing, where I would qualify it more as a public-vs-private thing.

      Reply
  5. Mario D

    Less is more. I find that in this era of 24 hours news stations , with an event like yesterday `s , the idea should be accuracy instead of having more content ,more headlines,more guests,more exclusive stuff…

    After a while, a short while yesterday you have more than enough and already know that…they do not know. It`a already hard enough to have to swallow the event and the sad truth if you also have to sort through the tons of informations that they can`t even garantee to be reliable , you get a quick headache and need to go for fresh air…

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      I find that in this era of 24 hours news stations , with an event like yesterday `s , the idea should be accuracy instead of having more content ,more headlines,more guests,more exclusive stuff…

      That’s easy to say, but when you have hours of commercial-free airtime to fill, a public desperate for as much information as possible, and people online saying things like Twitter is scooping the media because it doesn’t wait for confirmation, it can be hard to hold back.

      I’m not calling for holding more information back during a breaking news event. But I am calling for proper attribution.

      Reply

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