Going For The Fake
By Natalie Pompilio
Natalie Pompilio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
KENS-TV BROKE THE story at 8:27 a.m. November 9: possible shooting at a San Antonio elementary school. Rival KSAT-TV followed with its own report five minutes later: shots fired, glass shattered, at least 14 people injured. News/talk radio station KTSA interrupted its regular broadcast with a more tempered version of events: a possible shooting at or near a school, with more details to come. Dozens of frantic parents, visions of another Columbine massacre undoubtedly in their heads, rushed to the school to check on their children.
But there hadn't been a shooting at Coker Elementary School. No bullets. No shattered glass. No injured children. The journalists had misunderstood emergency medical services and police radio chatter, confirmed their misinformation with trusted sources, and turned a minor incident far from the school into bloodshed in the classrooms.
The actual gunfire had occurred on a highway miles away. The school's custodian had been shot at by another driver during the morning commute. The custodian, who was slightly injured by broken glass, waited until he was safely at the elementary school before calling police to report the incident.
But that simple explanation came too late for the terrified parents, two of whom were involved in separate accidents en route to their children. The incident has left the news organizations struggling to rebuild their reputations and regain the public's trust.
"When I heard the stories, I thought, 'My God, what are we coming to in our rush to be first with the story?' " says Bob Giles, executive director of the Freedom Forum's Media Studies Center. "It doesn't make a difference in the public perception of which is the better news organization if you take an extra hour to find out if a report is correct or not."
Jim Boyle, news director at KSAT-TV, says the ABC affiliate broke into "Good Morning America" with the story because he thought it was correct. Reporters had confirmed with police dispatchers what they'd heard over the radio, "but that didn't tell the whole story. It was a garbled story," Boyle says.
"We should have made more calls. We should have gone further with it," adds Boyle, who takes responsibility for the error.
At independent KTSA radio, News Director Bryan Erickson says his reporters also checked the story. Police and EMS sources confirmed they were responding to the report of a shooting at a school, and a call to Coker Elementary was answered with, "We can't talk to you right now," Erickson says. That was enough for the station to break into its regular programming.
"We didn't do it because we wanted to be first, but because we thought we had accurate information and we wanted to let parents know," Erickson says. "We were relying on information that in the past has always been accurate."
KENS News Director Nick Simonette did not return four phone calls seeking comment. In an interview with the San Antonio Express-News, Simonette said the CBS affiliate did its best to verify the report before going on air. "I think you have to go with what police are saying. There's not an option. Do I wait? I don't think so," Simonette told the paper, adding: "We were just going with what they were saying. It would have been highly irresponsible to wait on this."
Giles says the journalistic instinct to be first may be heightened by today's media landscape. "Any news organization that puts a value on being first is going to feel increased pressure because of the Internet, live video cameras and so on. If they think their reputation is built on being first, they're at risk of making a news judgment that's seriously flawed, as this one was."
Although the incident occurred during a "sweeps" period, Boyle says ratings had nothing to do with rushing the story on air. "We are in a competitive business, but that's year round," he says. "As someone said, with real-time journalism, you have to handle it carefully, like fire."
The errors made by the San Antonio stations should be a lesson to everyone in the industry, says Scott Libin, news director at KSTP-TV in Minneapolis and a former faculty member at the Poynter Institute.
"This is a great example of how sure you need to be. You can put your helicopter up and you can send your crews, but before you flick the switch you have to know more," Libin says. "It's an easy test: What do we know and what do we need to know? It'll save you a lot of trouble. More important, it'll save your viewers a lot of trouble."
Erickson says he and his staff have been replaying the events of November 9, trying to decide what, if anything, they would have done differently. Although he says he feels "comfortable" with what KTSA reported, he also notes that, in the future, he might tell reporters to "wait the five minutes and make an extra phone call."
KSAT's Boyle says his station is reviewing its policies and plans to be much more careful in the future. "We were wrong, and we should have been smarter, and I hope now we are."