Reporter’s Confession: I Screwed Up While Covering A Mass Murder

December 19, 2012

newspapersI’d love to join the jury convicting the news media for its negligence during the first few hours following the school massacre in Newtown, Conn. There were some serious screwups.

The problem is that I’m guilty, too. Here is my confession.

Let’s start by reviewing the incorrect information that many prominent media outlets reported Friday.

WRONG – The shooter is Ryan Lanza.

WRONG – This photo pulled from Facebook is the guy who just killed a bunch of kids.

WRONG – The shooter used two handguns. Police found a rifle in the shooter’s car.

WRONG – The shooter killed his mom, a teacher at the school, in her classroom and attacked her students.

WRONG – The shooter walked into the school unmolested because staffers recognized him.

There’s plenty of hand-wringing inside and outside the industry about these errors. NPR’s media writer David Folkenflik detailed the mistakes in a story this week. Margaret Sullivan, the public editor at the New York Times, detailed the paper’s errors.

Which brings me to the sin I committed while covering one of the worst mass killings on U.S. soil. It was April 1995, just a few days after a truck bomb explosion killed 168 people at the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City.

I was a young reporter at the Dallas Morning News. Colleagues with more seniority had been dispatched to Oklahoma City and elsewhere, and the newspaper’s bench was getting thin. When editors needed a body to ship out to Kingman, Ariz., to research the accused bomber’s past, I got the call.

It was an exciting assignment. I landed in Kingman and drove straight to the trailer park where Timothy McVeigh was said to have lived. The Arizona papers had already been there, but on this morning, the national pack was just trickling in.

A few reporters clustered around a guy named Bob Evans Hardy, who said he worked at the trailer park. We were trying to find the trailer park owner, who’d been quoted in the local papers, but Hardy told us the owner was sleeping. So we peppered Hardy with questions about this monster named McVeigh.

Timothy McVeigh

Timothy McVeigh

Hardy did not disappoint us. He pointed to a trailer where he said McVeigh lived. He regaled us with tales about a brash, beer-drinking guy who had two dogs and an unruly demeanor. Notebooks and tape recorders in hand, the reporters gobbled up the juicy tidbits.

I was thrilled. I gladly accepted a beer from Hardy and had my picture snapped in front of the “McVeigh Trailer.”

But even from the little I’d already read and heard about McVeigh, this description struck me as odd. He was said to be a quiet, clean-cut guy who generally kept to himself. Why would he show up in Kingman and be such a different person?

No matter. I called the Dallas newsroom and fed my details to the reporter writing our profile of McVeigh. Here’s how it appeared in a front page Dallas Morning News story on April 24, 1995:

Bob Hardy, an employee at the Canyon West RV and Mobile Park, described Mr. McVeigh – who lived in the trailer park for four months – as an unruly tenant. He played loud music, had two barking dogs, a Labrador and a German Shepherd, and was generally unfriendly, Mr. Hardy said.

The next day I heard other reporters talking about Bob Hardy getting it wrong. I rushed back over to the trailer park and learned the gut-sinking truth: Hardy had gotten mixed up. The unruly guy he’d described lived in a different trailer. It turns out McVeigh was a quiet tenant who didn’t cause any problems and mostly kept to himself.


Bob Ingrassia Kingman Arizona

Bob Ingrassia in Kingman, Ariz., on April 23, 1995, in the trailer park where Timothy McVeigh once lived.

I can’t remember exactly how the Morning News handled the mistake. I’m fairly certain I told the reporter who had written our story. I think we decided to just move on and agreed not to repeat the information. I’m almost certain the paper never ran a correction.

So here it is: The Dallas Morning News incorrectly reported that Timothy McVeigh was an obnoxious tenant while living in a trailer park in Kingman, Ariz. We regret the error.

How did I screw up? Well, I can’t blame the pressures of social media. Nor can I blame the “24-hour news cycle” of cable TV news. The only mainstream social media back in 1995 was the telephone. And I worked for a print outlet that certainly wasn’t doing much on the web at the time.

I believe that social media and around-the-clock news only amplify errors, they don’t cause them. Here’s my take on why reporters get stuff wrong while reporting on big breaking news stories.

1. Faith in Numbers: Everyone else is reporting it, so it must be right. No way all of us are wrong.

2. Fear of Being Left Behind: If I don’t report this, the other guy will. My editors will chew me out for not having it.

3. Ignoring the Alarm Bell: Something tells me this information isn’t right. But it’s so good!

4. Passing the Buck: I didn’t make this stuff up. A source told me this. It’s not my fault if it turns out to be wrong.

See that? No mention of Twitter. No blaming the pressures of updating the web. The reasons I made a mistake were in play back when reporters were scrambling to find out about John Wilkes Booth.

So next time (and there’s always a next time), let’s dig a bit deeper when reporters make a mess of a breaking news story. Let’s be aware of the pressures that drive the mistakes, including those that have nothing to do with Twitter, Facebook and the web.

As Margaret Sullivan noted in her post this week:

Easy to say, and increasingly hard to do, is to follow this well-accepted advice: It’s always better to be slower and right than faster and wrong.