Naming the Navy Yard Shooter: CNN Waits and Gets It Right
Back in the late 90s when I worked for the NBC owned-and-affiliated station in Miami, the general manager there was a guy name Don Browne. He was an NBC lifer whose name befit his imposing status as a kind of Godfather within the network. One of the things Don always used to tell us was, “First be best, then be first.” In his eyes, the message of this was two-fold: be the best at what we did before worrying about whether we were number one in the ratings, and be right about a story before we worried about whether we were getting it on the air before anyone else in the market.
When you work in television news, this is a difficult philosophy to completely wrap your arms around only because the natural inclination is to always consider whether what you’re airing is something people will want to watch and during a breaking news situation you can’t help but push to be the one who gets there first. The problem with the latter half of this little fact-of-life in today’s media climate is that in the rush to be the one breaking the story first, you run the risk of getting the whole thing wrong and ending up with egg on your face.
Yesterday, CNN did something extraordinary in its reporting of the Navy Yard shooting in Washington, DC. While both MSNBC and Fox were already publicly IDd-ing the shooter as 34-year-old Aaron Alexis, CNN held off — for a hell of a long time. Twitter had been bouncing Alexis’s name around for more than an hour and the networks were reporting that “multiple sources” confirmed Alexis was the guy, but CNN still wouldn’t go with it. It wasn’t until almost 4pm that Brooke Baldwin finally stated that CNN’s desk had received official confirmation through the FBI that the shooter was positively Aaron Alexis. The network didn’t worry about being first, it worried about being best. And right. This came in the middle of a chaotic afternoon that had already seen CBS and NBC have to officially retract earlier reports that the shooter was a Navy petty officer named Rollie Chance.
We see this again and again, every time there’s a breaking story of this kind: the networks spend hours and hours chasing their tails live in front of the entire country, spinning themselves in circles, throwing out information that may or may not be 100% correct. During the Sandy Hook shooting, NBC’s Pete Williams, for all his Jedi-like skills at newsgathering, was one of many who incorrectly IDd the name of the gunman as Ryan Lanza, rather than his brother Adam. Williams admittedly exercised due diligence in tracking down several sources willing to finger the elder Lanza — none of them, unfortunately, on the record — but in the end he still got it wrong. On the air.
The thing to keep in mind here is that it’s more than just a case of red-faced embarrassment for the networks willing to jump the gun and go with information they’re sure is right even though it isn’t. In fact, the result for the networks in the great scheme of things is pretty meaningless. What really matters is what happens to the innocent person whom the media incorrectly names as a perpetrator of unimaginable violence. Ryan Lanza didn’t kill anybody. Neither did Rollie Chance, yesterday. These are guys who were the victims in a race that was called prematurely, before all the horses made it across the finish line. Yes, it looks bad for a media outlet to make a mistake that forces it to retract a report, but it’s often a hell of a lot worse for the person who’s the subject of that false report. There are times that news outlets with nationwide and even global reach forget that they have the awesome power to utterly destroy someone’s life simply by mentioning his or her name in the wrong context.
They need to be more careful because the impact for regular people who did nothing wrong can be devastating. CNN made the right choice yesterday. They deserve to be praised for it.