‘Getting It Wrong’: Media Misreport Many Dallas Details

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Wrong. Again. Like so many times before, the initial news reports out of Dallas on Thursday night and into Friday were inaccurate, the Washington Post reports.. There were two shooters, news people said, and then there were four. The gunmen had “triangulated” police officers guarding a protest march, and had targeted them from an elevated position. Except “they” hadn’t done any such thing. By midday Friday, new facts began to displace the old “facts.” Instead of two or four gunmen, police identified just one, Micah Xavier Johnson, 25,  who (reportedly) died when police detonated a bomb sent in to his hiding place via a robot.

Contemporary media organizations didn’t invent misreporting, but it seems to be a feature of almost every major breaking news event these days, from accidents to natural disasters to the man-made kind. Thanks to the speed and ubi­quity of digital media, readers, viewers, and listeners know more than ever about any unfolding incident or disaster. They also know less, thanks to the unfiltered, uncorroborated and just plain inaccurate factoids that poison the news ecosystem like a toxic chemical. It’s not just inaccurate reporting alone; TV news panels and people on social media compound questionable facts by repeating them and speculating about them. “We keep relearning this lesson over and over,” says W. Joseph Campbell, a communications professor at American University and the author of “Getting It Wrong,” a book about epic journalism mistakes. “With any tragedy, you see it again and again.” The problem is easy to diagnose, but difficult to cure, Campbell says. The competitive scramble for news, combined with the “fog of war,” combined with the absence of authoritative fact leads to defective reporting.

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