Get it first. But first, get it right.
Journalists attempt to do that each day. And the job gets even more difficult when complicated news breaks quickly and multiple sources offer conflicting information.
In the seven days since Antwon Rose was shot and killed by a police officer in East Pittsburgh, local news outlets have grappled with this challenge. We know readers are not just interested in this story, but also want to understand why conflicting information has sometimes emerged.
So we wanted to take you behind the scenes for a moment.
Today, several announcements came from Allegheny County Director of Communications Amie Downs about this unfolding story. At noon today, local reporters received this message: “The Allegheny County Police Department announced today that a juvenile picked up on separate charges last night and detained is expected to be charged later today in the North Braddock drive-by shooting which occurred on June 19, 2018. No further information is available at this time. Once charges have been filed, we’ll provide additional information including his name and charges.”
It was possible to take from that message the suggestion that perhaps the young man due to be charged in the earlier drive-by shooting was not among those who were traveling in a car with Antwon Rose shortly after. Reporters immediately began pursuing that angle.
Just shy of an hour later, at 12:53 p.m., a second message came from Downs: “I apologize for the brevity of the previous communication, but was trying to get the information out to everyone quickly,” she wrote. “Yes, this individual is believed to be the third person in the vehicle with Antwon Rose.”
The message continued: “Finally, I misspoke. Charges are forthcoming but are not expected to be later today as I had indicated. Once charges have been filed, we will provide that additional information.”
Downs often reaches out to individual reporters, quietly correcting errors in far less controversial stories — a reporter referring to the State House while showing a photo of Congress, for example — in order to ensure that accurate information gets out to the people of Allegheny County. The public rarely, if ever, knows she’s made that effort. As the Allegheny County spokeswoman, Downs acts as the official voice of the county and its agencies. When she speaks, Downs does not speak for herself but instead speaks on behalf of the government.
But several times in recent weeks, Downs and her office have taken public stands via social media, email and the county website to challenge reporters on the record. Downs said she has never done that before in her seven years on the job.
On Friday, June 22, she issued two statements directly contradicting televised reports regarding Rose on KDKA and WPXI.
The stations had reported that, one, the county had video evidence of Rose firing a gun during a previous drive-by shooting, and that, two, detectives found gun residue on Rose’s hands.
But in an effort to fully inform viewers, WPXI’s David Johnson had said this during the report: “To be transparent here at Channel 11 News, we have multiple sources telling multiple journalists in our newsroom the information we reported today.”
Downs took the unusual step of going public to say the reports were wrong. In an e-mail to media outlets, she wrote: “We have been asked by numerous outlets to confirm reports that video shows Antwon Rose firing (a) weapon in the earlier drive-by shooting. That information is false.”
Downs said she tried to convince the reporters that the information was wrong behind the scenes, and then went public when she realized they were going ahead with their stories.
“I would not put my reputation out there and I would not have said something like that if I was not 100 percent confident in the information I was saying,” Downs told me on Monday. Her role, she says “is to correct errors — whether mine or the reporters’ — as quickly as I possibly can because my job is to provide the most accurate and transparent information that I can.”
It’s that transparency — from local government and from the media — that all citizens deserve.
In each case on Friday, the stations amended their reports to say they had unnamed sources telling them one thing, and that the county’s official spokeswoman contradicted the information by saying another. When we followed up to discuss the confusion, a reporter at KDKA referred questions to the station’s news director, who could not be reached for comment.
WPXI officially declined to comment. But they had offered viewers a detailed examination of the conflicting reports on Friday night, spending more than four minutes during the 11 p.m. broadcast to explain the situation from multiple sides. Four minutes is practically an eternity for TV and this detailed analysis showed viewers how diligently they worked to deal with this situation.
High-profile situations like this don’t happen often in our community, but reporters frequently encounter stories in which two or more sources present different, or even opposing, versions of events. Sometimes a reporter is on the scene when a story breaks, but more often they aren’t. Lacking firsthand information, the reporters have to decide how much they trust their sources and how to balance that trust against the county’s official story. They often attribute information to a public safety official, letting readers and viewers decide for themselves how solid a piece of information appears to be.
The story of June 19 is still coming to light. Local officials will no doubt issue more announcements.
In a climate when journalists are struggling both with a scarcity of jobs and attacks on their credibility, the task of reporting on a community has become even more difficult even as it’s more vital than ever. But just as transparency from Downs’ office can help clear up confusion, transparency from journalists about their reporting is the key to building an authentic sense of trust with their audience.
UPDATE 6/27: Mike Manko, spokesman for the Allegheny County District Attorney, issued a strongly worded rebuke to the media and media managers on Wednesday morning, saying the county’s official denial of the television stations’ unnamed sources was “met with defiance and arrogance.”
Speaking directly to the assembled media prior to the District Attorney’s press conference regarding charges against police officer Michael Rosfeld, Manko said, “News managers, you are the gatekeepers and you failed.”
When we reached out to KDKA and WPXI to ask for a response to Manko’s statement, WPXI had no comment. We received no response from KDKA.
Manko takes some TV media to task for false reporting about Antwon’s involvement in the North Braddock drive-by shooting. He says media’s response to his attempts to correct the bad information was “deeply offensive and bitterly disappointing.”
— Shelly Bradbury (@ShellyBradbury) June 27, 2018