LAX shooting (again) highlights the need for a slow-news approach

This week’s most visible journalism error belongs to NBC News, which reported the death of the Los Angeles airport shooter and then had to take it back. “JUST IN: LAX gunman killed by law enforcement” – posted on Twitter at 11:15 am Pacific Time – gave way to “Correction: LAX gunman NOT killed by law enforcement. Gunman is in custody.” two and a half hours later.

A number of words come to mind to describe this process, but the one I’d use first is: stupid. The second: inevitable.

NBC’s error is notable mainly because it’s not notable. It was hardly the only major media operator to tell the world a falsehood. Sad to say,  our twitchy new world – where people constantly shoot before they aim – is the new normal. Nothing seems likely to lead media companies, much less social media users, to post what they can prove or know beyond a serious doubt, as opposed to what they have merely heard.

So NBC wasn’t the only journalism organization to get it wrong. Among a number of others that couldn’t wait for confirmation, the Los Angeles Times announced, “BREAKING: Sources tell @latimes that LAX shooter was a TSA employee. He was shot dead after killing fellow worker. Post coming.” The retraction came, as with NBC, more than two hours later.

I’ve been hoping that media organizations would exercise more judgment than zeal in situations like this. But hope gives way to reality – the quest for clicks, page views and viewers is plainly more important than being right.

So I return to my advice for the rest of us: Take what I call a “slow news” approach to breaking or surprising news. My rule of thumb is simple when it comes to the former: The closer we are (in time) to a major event, the more likely that reports about it will be wrong. Believe nothing until there’s better evidence than unnamed “sources” or the other speculation that passes for journalism even from our supposedly finest organizations.

Here’s an excerpt from the book that addresses slow news:

On Nov. 5, 2009, in the minutes and hours after an Army officer opened fire on his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, the media floodgates opened in the now-standard way. A torrent of news reports and commentary poured from the scene, the immediate community and the Pentagon, amplified by corollary data, informed commentary and rank speculation from journalists, bloggers, podcasters, Tweeters, texters and more.

Also standard in this age of fast news was the quality of the early information: utterly unreliable and mostly wrong. The shooter was dead; no he wasn’t. There were two accomplices; no there weren’t. And so on.

Several critics tore into a soldier who was using Twitter, a service noted for rumors, to post about what she was seeing. Indeed, some of what the soldier posted turned out to be wrong. But was it fair to extrapolate this to brand all forms of citizen media as untrustworthy and voyeuristic?

There was plenty of wrong information going around that day, at all levels of media. Lots of people quoted President Obama’s admonition to wait for the facts, but almost no one followed it. And almost no one heeded Army Gen. George William Casey Jr.’s advice the following Sunday not to jump to conclusions “based on little snippets of information that come out.”

Greg Marx at the Columbia Journalism Review was among several commentators to catalog some of the misinformation that raced around. He wrote:

It’s not fair to lay too much of this confusion at the feet of [traditional media] reporters, who are mostly diligent and conscientious, who are basing their claims in good faith on what they are hearing from their sources, and who are under tremendous competitive pressure to get the story first. But on a story like this, tendencies toward error, exaggeration, and inconsistency are built into the system, at least in the first days of reporting. In due time, a clearer picture will begin to emerge; in this case, we’ll even hear from the shooter himself.

There will be plenty of time for analysis. Until then, let’s all take a deep breath.

Like many other people who’ve been burned by believing too quickly, I’ve learned to put almost all of what journalists call “breaking news” into the category of gossip or, in the words of a scientist friend, “interesting if true.” That is, even though I gobble up “the latest” from a variety of sources, the sooner after the actual event the information appears, the more I assume it’s unreliable, if not false.

Still, I’m no different from everyone else in a key respect: When it comes to important (or sometimes trivial but interesting) breaking news, I, too, can react in almost Pavlovian ways from time to time, clicking the Refresh button on the browser again and again. I don’t tend to immediately email my friends and family or tweet about unconfirmed reports, though, and if I do pass along interesting tidbits I always make it a point to add “if true” to the might-be-news.

What is it about breaking news that causes us to turn off our logical brains? Why do we turn on the TV or click-click-click Refresh or scan the Twitter feeds to get the very latest details—especially when we learn, again and again, that the early news is so frequently wrong?

Ethan Zuckerman, a friend and colleague at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has some ideas:

  • The media make us do it. [As noted below, I give a lot of credence to this one.]
  • We’re bored.
  • Knowing the latest, even if it’s wrong, helps build social capital in conversations.
  • We’re junkies for narrative, and we always hope that we’ll get the fabled “rest of the story” by clicking one more time.

“I suspect there’s some truth to each of those explanations, and I suspect that each is badly incomplete,” Ethan says. “I also suspect that figuring out what drives our patterns of news consumption, and our susceptibility to fast, often-wrong news is critical” for having a sounder grasp of what we can trust.

Remember: Big breaking stories are literally exciting. They’re often about death or the threat of death, or they otherwise create anxiety. Neurological research shows that the more of your personal bandwidth anxiety takes up, the less clearly you think. To get even more neurological: The amygdala takes over from the prefrontal cortex.

Slowing the News

A wonderful trend has emerged in the culinary world, called the “slow food movement”—a rebellion against fast food and all the ecological and nutritional damage it causes.

As Ethan suggested to me at a Berkman Center retreat in late 2009, we need a “slow news” equivalent. Slow news is all about taking a deep breath.

One of society’s recently adopted clichés is the “24-hour news cycle”—a recognition that, for people who consume and create news via digital systems, the newspaper-a-day version of journalism has passed into history. Now, it’s said, we get news every hour of every day, and media creators work tirelessly to fill those hours with new stuff. (Happily, a few newspapers and magazines do continue to provide actual perspective and nuance.)

That 24-hour news cycle itself needs further adjustment, though. Even an hourly news cycle is too long; in an era of live-TV police chases, Twitter and twitchy audiences, the latest can come at any minute. Call it the 1,440-minute news cycle.

Rapid-fire news is about speed, and being speedy serves two main purposes for the provider. The first is gratification of the desire to be first. Humans are competitive, and in journalism newsrooms, scoops are a coin of the realm.

The second imperative is attracting an audience. Being first draws a crowd, and crowds can be turned into influence, money, or both. Witness cable news channels’ desperate hunt for “the latest” when big events are under way, even though the latest is so often the rankest garbage.

The urge to be first applies not just to those disseminating the raw information (which, remember, is often wrong) that’s the basis for breaking news. It’s also the case, for example, for the blogger who offers up the first sensible-sounding commentary that puts the “news” into perspective. The winners in the online commentary derby—which is just as competitive, though played for lower financial stakes—are the quick and deft writers who tell us what it all means. That they’re often basing their perspectives on falsehoods and inaccuracies seems to matter less than that they’re early to comment.

I’m not battling human nature. We all want to know what’s going on, and the bigger the calamity is, the more we want to know—especially if it may affect us directly (if a hurricane is approaching, the latest news is not just interesting but potentially life-saving). Nothing is going to change that, and nothing should.

Nor is this a new phenomenon. Speculation has passed for journalism in all media eras. Every commercial plane crash, for example, is followed by days of brazen hypothesizing by so-called experts, but now we are fed their ideas at hourly (or briefer) intervals, rather than only on the evening news or in the daily paper—and even that frequency was too much. Only months of actual investigation by the real experts—and sometimes not even that—will reveal the real truth, but we are nevertheless subjected to endless new theories and rehashings of the “facts.”

The New News Cycle

The advent of the 1,440-minute news cycle (or should we call it the 86,400-second news cycle?), which has fed our apparently insatiable appetite for something new to talk about, should literally give us pause. Again and again, we’ve seen that initial assumptions can be grossly untrustworthy.

Consider, for example, the Fort Hood shootings. We learned that the perpetrator wasn’t killed during his rampage, contrary to what was initially reported. And that fact stayed with us because the story was still fresh enough, and the saturation coverage was ongoing, when reports emerged that he hadn’t been shot dead by law enforcement.

However, we all also “know” false things that were inaccurately reported and then later disproved, in part because journalists typically don’t report final outcomes with the same passion and prominence that they report the initial news. We’ve all seen videos of dramatic arrests of people who were later acquitted, but still had their reputations shattered thanks to the inherent bias in crime reporting. And how many of us have heard a report that such-and-such product or behavior has been found to raise the risk of cancer, but never heard the follow-up that said the initial report was either inaccurate or misleading?

The abundance of wrong information in the rapid-fire news system has other causes than simple speed, including the decline of what’s supposed to be a staple of journalism: fact checking before running with a story.

As Clay Shirky (who contributed this book’s foreword) has observed—in a Twitter tweet, no less—“fact-checking is way down, and after-the-fact checking is way WAY up.”

Clay’s point lends weight to the argument for slow news; to the idea that we all might be wise to think before we react. That is what many of us failed to do during the early hours and days of the “#amazonfail” event of April 2009. As Clay described it afterwards:

After an enormous number of books relating to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered (LGBT) themes lost their Amazon sales rank, and therefore their visibility in certain Amazon list and search functions, we participated in a public campaign, largely coordinated via the Twitter keyword #amazonfail (a form of labeling called a hashtag) because of a perceived injustice at the hands of that company, an injustice that didn’t actually occur.

Like Clay, I came to believe that Amazon hadn’t deliberately made a political decision to reduce the visibility of these books; it was, the company said (as part of an inept PR handling of the situation), a programming error. But I was one of the people who flamed Amazon (in which I own a small amount of stock) before I knew the full story. I hope I learned a lesson.

I rely in large part on gut instincts when I make big decisions, but my gut only gives me good advice when I’ve immersed myself in the facts about things that are important. This suggests not just being skeptical—the first of the principles I hope you’ll embrace—but also waiting for persuasive evidence before deciding what’s true and what’s not.

It comes down to this: As news accelerates faster and faster, you should be slower to believe what you hear, and you should look harder for the coverage that pulls together the most facts with the most clarity about what’s known and what’s speculation. Wikipedia, that sometimes maligned mega-encyclopedia, can be a terrific place to start; more on that in the next chapter.

Can we persuade ourselves to take a deep breath, slow down and dig deeper as a normal part of our media use, and to deploy the other principles of media consumption to figure out what we can trust and what we can’t? We can. And if we want to have any reason to trust what we read (hear, etc.), we’d better.

Annals of Journalists Who Should Have Done More Reporting

A great example of how easy it is to do shallow reporting: Business Insider’s Steve Kovach calls “nothing groundbreaking” the news that Dropbox — the big online storage company (which I use for some file backups) — has admitted it will decrypt your files and will hand them over to government agencies demand to see the files. Don’t worry about it, says Kovach — you only need to be concerned if you’re doing something wrong.

This is incorrect, on several levels. The latest terms of service flatly contradict Dropbox’s assurance elsewhere on the site that “Dropbox employees aren’t able to access user files, and when troubleshooting an account they only have access to file metadata (filenames, file sizes, etc., not the file contents).” So some people inside the company (must be employees, right?) can access user files after all.

And if someone inside the company can do that, the files are vulnerable. As Miguel de Icaza points out on his blog:

This announcement means that Dropbox never had any mechanism to prevent employees from accessing your files, and it means that Dropbox never had the crypto smarts to ensure the privacy of your files and never had the smarts to only decrypt the files for you. It turns out, they keep their keys on their servers, and anyone with clearance at Dropbox or anyone that manages to hack into their servers would be able to get access to your files.

If companies with a very strict set of security policies and procedures like Google have had problems with employees that abused their privileges, one has to wonder what can happen at a startup like Dropbox where the security perimeter and the policies are likely going to be orders of magnitude laxer.

If you care about your security and use Dropbox, you should care about this. If you’re a journalist covering the company, maybe you should look further than the surface.


When Journalists Choose to Deceive

The public editor (ombudsman) of the New York Times, Arthur Brisbane, has looked into the newspaper’s extremely questionable actions in a recent situation — withholding key facts from articles at the request of the Obama administration and then actively misleading readers — and concluded that the paper did the right thing. I could not disagree more.

Let me note here that I’ve known Brisbane for many years. We’ve been colleagues at several news companies, and he’s a friend. But I believe he got this one very wrong.

The case at hand: Raymond Davis, who either works for the CIA or has extremely close ties, shot and killed two people in Pakistan recently. (The Times says he’s a “private contractor” — read: mercenary — who provided security for CIA agents; the Guardian says he’s a CIA spy.)  The U.S. government persuaded the Times and several other news organizations to hold back on his affiliation/employment after the shootings, which have caused a huge uproar in Pakistan, a nation that has increasingly tense relations with America.

But the Times didn’t just withhold that information. It actively dissembled. As Brisbane writes:

For nearly two weeks, The Times tried to report on the Davis affair while sealing off the C.I.A connection. In practice, this meant its stories contained material that, in the cold light of retrospect, seems very misleading. Here’s an example from an article on Feb. 11 that referred to a statement issued by the American government:

“The statement on Friday night said that Mr. Davis was assigned as an ‘administrative and technical’ member of the staff at the American Embassy in Islamabad. But his exact duties have not been explained, and the reason he was driving alone with a Glock handgun, a pocket telescope and GPS equipment has fueled speculation in the Pakistani news media.”

How can a news outlet stay credible when readers learn later that it has concealed what it knows?

The answer is it cannot. And, as Brisbane himself notes, what the Times did was more than simply conceal. When it reported that “Davis’ exact duties have not been explained,” it was, quite simply, being deceitful to its audience.

I appreciate that the newspaper was trying to do the right thing here. It wanted to help protect the life of someone who might be in serious jeopardy if it told the truth it knew. The editors believed they had two options only: Tell the full story (or as much as they actually knew), or deceive the readers by telling only part of it truthfully and using deliberately misleading language in places. I’d have some discomfort picking either option, though if those were genuinely the only two choices I’d have picked the first.

But there was a third option: Say nothing at all — pretend the situation doesn’t exist and write nothing about it. The Times makes daily decisions about what it considers newsworthy, not to mention what stories it feels it’s gathered enough information to tell in the first place.

The say-nothing option wouldn’t have been a lot more palatable; indeed, it would have made the paper look as if it didn’t have a clue about a major story, or, as people would have speculated, that it was not publishing anything for its own (probably political) reasons. But it would have been less dishonorable than the route the paper chose to travel.

Printing nothing would have been journalistic nonfeasance, what Webster describes as the “failure to do what ought to be done.” What the newspaper printed was, in my view, malfeasance — outright journalistic wrongdoing.

Free Copy of Next Print Version for Error Finders

I’m grateful to folks who’ve found and reported mistakes in the book. Not only do I plan to name you on a special page, but I’ll be offering you a copy of the next print edition of the book (later this year, I hope). I haven’t worked out the details, but consider this a promise.

Fine print: As you might guess, this applies only to the first person to report each specific mistake.

Shirley Sherrod’s revenge

This article was originally published on Salon on July 29, 2010.

Andrew Breitbart should be held accountable for his deceptions, but is there a libel case here?

This is no surprise: Shirley Sherrod, the Agriculture Department official who was forced out in the wake of false claims that racist views affected her work, says she’ll sue Andrew Breitbart for his bogus “journalism” about her. But are the courts the best place to hold him accountable for his sleaze?

I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not going to predict the outcome of any Sherrod libel claim. A court — and Sherrod herself — would have a number of issues to consider, however.

One is whether Sherrod was a public official or public figure at the time when Breitbart posted his now-infamous Web article featuring an excerpt from a video that purported to show her, an African-American, acknowledging racial bias against white farmers and then acting on it to their detriment. (Your town’s mayor is a public official; Lindsay Lohan is a public figure. Which makes California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger both, I suppose.)

Public officials and public figures have higher hurdles in libel cases, thanks to Supreme Court rulings that required a showing of “actual malice” on the part of the person making the false statement. Essentially, malice means that the defamatory material was published with the knowledge that it was false, or that the publisher showed “reckless disregard” for the truth. (See the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s page on defamation law for more detail.)

Breitbart has claimed he didn’t know the video was a hack job — purporting to show racism when in fact her point, made clear in the context of the full recording, was that the issue was class, not race and that she did her best to help the farmers. If he didn’t know, did he try to find out? Would that matter in a libel case?

Even if he’s telling the truth about not knowing the true nature of the video, and even if that is enough to make the commentary non-libelous, Breitbart may have another problem: his bogus “correction” of the original. Here’s the correction:

While Ms. Sherrod made the remarks captured in the first video featured in this post while she held a federally appointed position, the story she tells refers to actions she took before she held that federal position.

As friend and colleague Scott Rosenberg has pointed out, this is not much better than the original.

A genuine correction, Scott writes, would read something like this:

Our original story was wrong. We quoted Sherrod to suggest that she drove an old white couple off their farm because she was a racist. In fact, she helped that couple hold onto their farm and used the tale to argue against racism.

So, even if the original wasn’t libelous under the current public-figure standard, is Breitbart’s refusal to admit he was wrong about so much — in the face of utterly clear evidence — legally actionable? Again, I’m not a lawyer, but I have a feeling we’re going to find out the answer.

David Ardia, director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard’sBerkman Center for Internet & Society (I co-founded the project when I was a fellow at the center several years ago), says the correction “appears to give her a stronger case on the question of actual malice” than the original posting — again assuming Breitbart wasn’t complicit in the video’s editing. These cases depend on state of mind, he says, but it seems clear that Breitbart knew at the time he posted the correction what was in the full video.

Some other questions, legal and otherwise, that may come up include:

  • Will California’s shield law let Breitbart keep the name of his source confidential?
  • Should anonymous sources be permitted to launder their defamations through others? (I’ll be coming back to this in another posting.)
  • Was Breitbart doing journalism, however crappy it may have been?
  • Has Sherrod ever said or done anything that could fairly be characterized as having racist intent, regardless of what happened in this case?

If Sherrod proceeds with this case, her adult life will almost certainly be put under a microscope — this one with a court order behind it in discovery proceedings — where Breitbart’s lawyers look for even a hint that she’s the kind of person Breitbart was claiming in the first place. Can anyone whose father was lynched by white racists not have had such things to say, ever? My sympathies lie strongly with Sherrod, and I’d hope a jury’s would as well, but I wonder if she’s ready for the legal attack dogs who may demonstrate even less honor, if that’s possible, than Breitbart.

David Ardia notes that individuals seeking libel damages, even when totally justified, often don’t get the results they expect in an often vicious process. In fact, he tells me, it’s fairly rare to get anything close to full satisfaction.

There’s one more question, and I still think it’s the most important one.

  • Why should anyone believe anything Breitbart says at this point?

The answer, of course, is that Breitbart has no credibility whatever among those who count honor and fairness as an element of journalism. He could regain some with a forthright admission of what he did, but at this point that looks unlikely.

Sadly, he still has a substantial audience. I hope anyone reading this is not among its members.

Politico’s Lame Excuse for Posting Unverified Memo

Screen shot 2010-03-20 at 10.20.40 AM.pngPolitico, the website devoted to all things political, almost certainly got pwned by scam artists Friday when it posted an unverified memo — a probable hoax — about health care. It’s an embarrassment for journalists who fall for fakery, but these kinds of things do happen.

What doesn’t usually happen is how Politico dealt with its inadequate journalism. And the case brought back memories of another, more significant mess: the “Rathergate” affair of 2004; more on that below.

It’s obvious, if you read the non mea culpa posted by Political’s White House editor, Craig Gordon, that his organization didn’t check the memo’s authenticity before putting it online, and only pulled it down after Democrats complained. But instead simply apologizing forthrightly, he basically said a) Politico now couldn’t verify anything about the memo’s authenticity; b) but it seemed real (as if that’s an excuse; c) and besides, the Democrats were probably doing what the memo said they were doing anyway.

Then comes his conclusion, a howler for a journalist:

“In the end, POLITICO followed an old rule-of-thumb in journalism in taking down the memo: when in doubt, leave it out. By day’s end, it was still impossible to tell exactly what’s the real story behind the memo. But in the next few months, when Democrats try to pass a multi-billion-dollar ‘doc fix,’ maybe that will shed a little light on the Democrats’ real intentions.”

Except that “leave it out” is not synonymous with “publish it and then take it down if we learn later that we can’t verify its authenticity” — or is this the news standard for news organizations boasting a co-founder who serves on the Pulitzer Prize governing board?

The standard Politico has applied here, is, of course, “truthiness”: Because they want it to be true, it’s close enough.

To be more fair to Politico than the publication may deserve, the memo seemed to many others like something some Democratic aide, somewhere in Washington, might have written, perhaps as a draft. This helps explain why so many journalists took the bait and became part of the vast spin machine that so defines our nation’s political press.

As Talking Points Memo’s Christina Bellantoni reports, the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder had the honor to apologize for posting without checking. The Hill, a publication with apparently more traditional principles, got the memo but decided not to run it at all.

Remember, just a few years ago the journalism and political worlds went appropriately berserk when CBS’ 60 Minutes II team ran a story about George W. Bush’s “service” in the Air National Guard. The report was based, in part on memoranda that CBS not only couldn’t prove were authentic but which were at best highly questionable as to their authenticity. The journalism was awful; CBS and its people took a deserved hit to their reputations. Sadly — and I use that word partly because the journalists involved had long and outstanding records for doing great work — the people who made the mistakes held fast to the notion that they’d done nothing wrong.

It’s obvious, based on the verifiable record, that Bush got strings pulled to avoid Vietnam service and then all but ducked out on his duty. And it may turn out that some Democrat’s fingerprints are on the health care memo. In both cases, the journalism was lacking, and the journalists’ response even more so.

Politico is widely considered a new gold standard of political reporting. That worries me.

10 Weeks Later, Washington Post Editorial Error Still Uncorrected

More than 10 weeks since it published an editorial based on a false premise, the Washington Post has neither acknowledged nor corrected its mistake.

Then again, the same editorial page routinely publishes op-ed columns that are not truthful. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised when the people who write the unsigned editorials do the same.

In any event, the Post’s refusal to even address this error — I’ve expressed my disgust to the newspaper’s ombudsman, who says the editorial page is off limits for his reviews — is disgraceful.