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Friday, July 20, 2012

Bad Journalism and the Colorado Shooting

CNN drew criticism for a hasty and inaccurate report about the Supreme Court's decision on the health care law.  ABC just made an even bigger mistake, as The Huffington Post notes:
ABC's Brian Ross got himself into trouble on Friday when he incorrectly suggested there may have been a link between the alleged shooter in the Colorado theater tragedy and the Tea Party. Both Ross and the network later apologized for making the claim.
Ross' comments came after federal officials informed news outlets that the suspect was named James Holmes. George Stephanopoulos threw to him on "Good Morning America" by saying, "You've been investigating the background of Jim Holmes here. You found something that might be significant."
"There's a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado, page on the Colorado Tea party site as well, talking about him joining the Tea Party last year," Ross said. "Now, we don't know if this is the same Jim Holmes. But it's Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado."
The page that Ross seems to have been looking at has no identifiable information about the person on it other than his name.
Writes Eric Wemple of The Washington Post:
ABC News has posted this text on its site: 
Editor’s Note: An earlier ABC News broadcast report suggested that a Jim Holmes of a Colorado Tea Party organization might be the suspect, but that report was incorrect. ABC News and Brian Ross apologize for the mistake, and for disseminating that information before it was properly vetted.
The mistake: Unforgivable, regrettable, amateurish, miserable. “MEDIA BIAS? WHAT MEDIA BIAS?” asks an e-mail promoting a blog post on the conservative NewsBusters site about the mistake. Though ABC News won’t answer any questions at this point, it’s possible that Ross was basing his conjecture on a single Web page for the Colorado Tea Party Patriots.
What Ross failed to understand is that speculation about the Aurora shooter is a journalistic felony. You can speculate on air about Mitt Romney’s motives for not releasing his tax returns; you can speculate on air about whether the heat wave will pass; you cannot speculate on air about the identity of an alleged mass murderer. Especially when: 1) You’re rolling the suspect into a political overlay by mentioning the Tea Party movement; and 2) According to a quick online search, there are six “James Holmes” listed in Denver and 21 in the state of Colorado; error likelihood for such a common name is high.
The correction: Quick, responsible, complete and honest. Credit ABC News for cleaning up its gooey mess.