Single-Source Journalism

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Reporters used to learn very early in their careers to get at least two sources for their story. A single source is often misleading, sometimes deliberately so.

It’s been a couple of days since that horrible mass shooting in Oregon and investigators are only now sorting out the details. Yet the media were full of “facts” from the start. The gunman had killed 10, no make that 13, even 15, students at Umpqua Community College. The publisher of the local newspaper came on TV to confirm the 13 total.   The number of wounded ranged wildly, reaching as high as 20. At first, the shooter’s age – provided by the state governor – was listed as 20. We heard he had committed suicide.

The media also informed us the shooter was from the Midwest and had been in Oregon for only 48 hours. His family was from England, according to early reports. He had been chatting online with a female student and she might have spurned him, leading to his maniacal rage.

It seems none of this was true.

We are now hearing that the killer was a 26-year-old loser –  identified as Chris Harper-Mercer – who was kicked out of the army after a few months. He killed eight students and a professor. He also wounded several others but the last I heard the total – a lot less than 20 – is still in flux.

The gunman was apparently enrolled at the community college and lived nearby with his mother, Laurel Harper. She worked as a nurse and reportedly bragged on Facebook about her extensive gun collection. They previously lived in California.

Harper-Mercer did not commit suicide. Law enforcement officers shot him. At least that’s what we’re hearing now.

Meanwhile, all kinds of false information has been raining down upon us. Especially from the so-called social media (which the mainstream media culls for “news”). In the flurry of self-important web postings, a different name, Toby Reynolds, also known as Egg Man, was falsely fingered as the shooter.

Why am I rehashing the flawed reporting of the Oregon tragedy? Because it shows you can’t believe everything you read or hear these days.

And that’s sad.  Misinformation can do a lot of harm.

The Pope’s visit to America was tainted after he left, for example, because Kim Davis told the media she had met “secretly” with him and he had told her to “stay strong.” The pundits took Davis at her word, and blasted the pope for supporting a lawbreaker. One columnist even called the pope “a coward.”

But who says Davis was telling the truth?

I don’t think she was. The Vatican has denied the Pope said anything to support Davis in her illegal refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Apparently, there was no clandestine meeting. Davis just happened to be in a line of people who had somehow wangled permission to meet the pontiff on one of his stop-overs. Also, a same-sex couple was among the many, many folks who got to shake the pontiff’s hand and get a few encouraging words from him.

But I wonder whether those who read the original stories have seen the clarifications. Even if they have, the harm has been done. The pope’s historic visit now has a cloud over it.

By publishing the comments of a single source without getting confirmation, the media have once again failed to do their job.

Click for more on Kim Davis and the Pope.

gwgraeme

I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for Jamaicans.com

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