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Media, despite some blunders, cover DC shooting cautiously

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September 16, 2013: A Emergency Response Team vehicle arrives to the scene where a gunman was reported at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington. (AP Photo)

When we learned yesterday morning that there was a shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard, the country got to see reporters in the painstaking process of gathering information.

As Fox, CNN and MSNBC raced into action, blanketing the tragic story, the tone was serious and sober. Facts were hard to come by.

Crucial mistakes were made, as they always are in fast-moving situations—especially when some news organizations named the wrong man as an alleged mass murderer. But most journalists exercised a high degree of caution in what they were willing to report.

At 10:35 a.m., Bill Hemmer told viewers that despite reports by other news outlets, “Fox News cannot confirm there are fatalities.” NBC had been reporting for some time, based on an unnamed source, that four people had been killed in the attack, as had the Washington Post. The New York Times was reporting only one fatality at the time.

Initial reports of a single shooter gave way to MSNBC’s account of multiple shooters; the Washington Post and CNN said there were two shooters, with CNN’s Barbara Starr saying it would be “the most significant fact” if two people planned it ahead of time. CNN later said two shooters were “down.” Fox said it had confirmed the second shooter around 11:30.

About 15 minutes later, the AP reported, and NBC confirmed, that a shooter was dead. NBC’s Pete Williams soon warned there was “no hard evidence” of a second gunman. Williams said flatly that the Navy Yard attack now appeared to be a “workplace shooting,” based on his information that the gunman had some connection to the Navy facility, rather than “an act of terrorism.”

It seemed some news organizations had gone too far with a grassy-knoll moment, at least until D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier spoke to reporters at 12:15. She said law enforcement was searching for two other potential shooters but added that this was unconfirmed. So the theory was back on the media radar, and when President Obama spoke 15 minutes later, he said: “We still don’t know all the facts.”

As for casualties, most news outlets were saying the number was unknown, but MSNBC said four people had died and the Post said the figure was at least seven.

At one point CBS and ABC outlets reported that shots had been fired at Bolling Air Force Base; that turned out not to be true.

Who was the perpetrator? CBS and NBC identified the shooter as Rollie Chance, but CBS’s John Miller, a former FBI official, said just before 1 p.m. that his report on Chance was wrong. NBC stuck with the story, with Chuck Todd tweeting that Chance was a former Navy lieutenant—only to have Pete Williams report (without naming him) that while Chance’s ID card was found, he wasn’t the killer. Todd retracted the network’s report on Twitter.

Still, let’s look at the big picture. As reporters converged at the scene amid the fire trucks and hovering helicopters, as law enforcement specialists were brought on the air, as eyewitnesses were tracked down, here’s what didn’t happen:

There was no sense of alarmism, even though the Navy Yard is a mile and a half from the Capitol.

There was no reckless speculation about who was behind the mass shooting.

There was no racial chatter after the shooter was described in some accounts as a bald black man, or loose talk about gun control.

There was no attempt to sensationalize the story.

It was a reminder that journalism gets serious when presented with a big breaking story that requires seriousness. There is no need to engage in hype when a real-life drama is unfolding. We saw the same approach in the Boston Marathon bombing, including on CNN, although its coverage was marred by a report of a premature arrest.  

The arguments, the finger-pointing, the ideological warfare all tend to surface once the crisis is over and media outlets are looking for a way to keep the story alive. Thankfully, that’s not what happened yesterday morning and afternoon.

We learned after 2 p.m. that there were “at least 12 fatalities”—far higher than previous media estimates—when D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray spoke briefly to reporters.

While the toll was approaching the 13 killed in the Fort Hood rampage in Texas, Fox’s Catherine Herridge said: “Fort Hood was an act of terrorism; we don’t know what the motive was in this case.” (The total was soon upped to 13, including the shooter.)

Around the same time, The Post reported that the shooter was Aaron Alexis, 34 (not a man in his fifties as everyone had been reporting). The paper’s story said the Texan was discharged from the Navy reserves in 2011, was a regular at a Buddhist temple, and at a meditation center “seemed so tightly wound that at least one worker there sought to avoid him.”

NBC’s Williams said his network believed the shooter was “a 34-year-old man from Texas” but would not report the name until he was sure. But at 2:45 MSNBC, after the earlier misstep, was the first to identify the dead shooter as Alexis. Fox confirmed Alexis’ identity about 3:10. CNN, which has made caution a priority, reported the news just before 4 p.m.

Once authorities ended the search for the other two purported gunmen, the narrative was back where it began, with a single shooter, Alexis.

Seattle.gov added in a post that Alexis “was previously arrested by Seattle police in 2004 for shooting out the tires of another man’s vehicle in what Alexis later described to detectives as an anger-fueled ‘blackout.’”

We will hear more about Alexis in the coming days—far more than I’ll want to know, if the past is any indication. Obviously readers and viewers want to know who committed this awful crime and what his motivation may have been. But if he turns out just to be a crazy guy with a grievance who snapped, I fear the media spotlight will shine far more brightly on him than on the victims of his inhumane attack. 

As afternoon turned to evening, cable shows largely abandoned partisan debate and political analysis in favor of breaking news, although there were exceptions such as a shouting match over gun control led by CNN's Piers Morgan. Fox preempted "The O’Reilly Factor" for an hour of coverage anchored by Hemmer. 

There is plenty of time to debate the weapons that Alexis used and how he obtained them, military security, missed warning signs, what President Obama should or shouldn’t have done and so on. But for one day, at least, as the nation absorbed the disturbing details, news organizations mainly stuck with the news.

Media Buzz, hosted by Howard Kurtz, airs on Sundays at 11AM and 5PM ET on Fox News Channel.