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.
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.