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Errors Mar Navy Yard Shooting Reports

Errors Mar Navy Yard Shooting Reports

By Adam O'Neal - September 16, 2013

During the chaotic aftermath of Monday’s deadly shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, two major news networks misidentified the alleged gunman and issued retractions shortly afterward, part of an early coverage period marked by confusion and misinformation. It was also a reprise of erroneous reporting seen after the Sandy Hook and Boston Marathon attacks.

CBS News’ Charlie Kaye tweeted shortly after 12:50 p.m. that Senior Correspondent John Miller “says shooter was retired Navy chief petty officer, about 50 years old.” Kaye, again relaying information from Miller, then falsely identified the shooter as Rollie Chance.

The reports were instantly retweeted and regurgitated on cable news and various digital outlets and newspaper websites. They were followed by subsequent reports that Rollie Chance had been recently laid off from his job.

Just eight minutes later, however, CBS retracted the report and deleted the incorrect tweets.

Shortly after the retraction, this appeared on the official NBC News Twitter account: “Identity of shooter at D.C. Navy Yard is Rollie Chance, sources say.” Five minutes later, NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd issued a retraction on Twitter: “NBC News: we are now NOT reporting name of shooter; retracting that report. deleting those tweets.”

Todd later explained, “The confusion over the suspect’s name comes from conflicting law enforcement sources.”

Later, appearing on “Andrea Mitchell Reports,” NBC correspondent Pete Williams said that an identification card belonging to retired Navy Chief Petty Officer Rollie Chance was found near the body of the deceased shooter.

Authorities later identified the suspected gunman as 34-year-old Aaron Alexis, a civilian contractor from Fort Worth, Texas.

The real Rollie Chance was found and questioned; he is not believed to have played a role in the shooting that claimed at least 12 lives and wounded others. Apparently, Alexis took Chance’s identification card to gain access to the facility.

The false reports may have marked a low point of tumultuous day, but they weren’t the only muddled news accounts.

The number of wounded and killed fluctuated throughout the morning, as reports from various hospitals began to creep in. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray eventually confirmed at least 12 fatalities, including the alleged shooter.

Earlier, the ABC local affiliate in Washington reported, based at least partly on police scanner chatter, that a separate shooting took place at nearby Bolling Air Force Base. Bolling officials quickly denied that report.

Even more confusion arose when several news sources -- including CNN and The Washington Post -- reported that the Navy Yard incident may have involved two or three gunmen. It soon became clear where this information was coming from: At two subsequent briefings, Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier claimed that law enforcement had “reason to believe” that two other armed men -- one black and the other white -- were also involved.

Police later cleared one of the potential suspects.

The mishaps are just the latest in a string of significant errors from major news outlets during breaking stories.

In April, the New York Post falsely identified 16-year-old Salaheddin Barhoum and 24-year-old Yassine Zaimi as the “bag men” behind the Boston Marathon bombing. Barhoum and Zaimi have since sued the tabloid for libel.

In the immediate aftermath of the December 2012 Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn., several news sources falsely identified Ryan Lanza, brother of the actual shooter, Adam Lanza, as the suspect. The latter had been carrying his brother’s identification card. 

Adam O'Neal is a political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at aoneal@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearAdam.

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