An Object Lesson on Jumping to Conclusions During a Breaking News Story

Here is a hypothetical: a man shoots and kills a reporter and a cameraman on live morning television. You are an editorial writer for a major metropolitan daily newspaper. You wonder if Donald Trump’s antipathy toward the press led to the shooting. Should you A) go get a cup of coffee and wait a bit to see what develops, or B) put up a blog post wondering if Donald Trump is partly to blame for the two deaths? Tod Robberson at the DMN went with option B. Let’s see how that turned out.

The post is titled “Amid Escalating Anti-reporter Rhetoric, Two Journalists Are Killed.” Its time stamp says it was published at 9:08 this morning. But the post has been edited at least twice, from what I can tell. When it initially went up, the lead graph didn’t say anything about the gunman’s motive, though I didn’t think to copy and save that version of the lead. No one knew yet what the killer was thinking. Tod Robberson thought that maybe the killer had killed two people because the killer had been listening to Donald Trump. But no one knew. And, as far as I can tell, no one else wrote anything on the internet linking Donald Trump to the murders. If I’ve overlooked something, please let me know in the comments.

In any case, I did copy the lead a little bit later, after it had been learned that the killer was a disgruntled former employee of the television station. Here it is:

Details are too sketchy to assign the killer’s motives, but I wouldn’t be surprised, given all the anti-journalist rhetoric that personalities like Donald Trump are spouting these days, that there was some relation between such rhetoric and the on-air shooting deaths of a television reporter and photographer in Virginia today. The killer appears to have been a disgruntled ex-employee of the station.

If you’ll indulge me, dear readers, I’d like to break that down.

Details are too sketchy to assign the killer’s motives [Then why are you about to assign motives to the killer?], but I wouldn’t be surprised, given all the anti-journalist rhetoric that personalities like Donald Trump are spouting these days, that there was some relation between such rhetoric and the on-air shooting deaths of a television reporter and photographer in Virginia today. [You would be the only person in America who wouldn’t have been surprised. A guy murders two people on live television in Virginia while they interview a woman from the local chamber of commerce — because Donald Trump told a guy to “go back to Univison”? That would be very, very, very surprising.] The killer appears to have been a disgruntled ex-employee of the station. [Wait. What? If the killer was a disgruntled ex-employee of the station, then details aren’t too sketchy to assign motives and you should be very, very, very surprised if he did it because Donald Trump told a guy to “go back to Univision.”]

Going with option B didn’t seem to be working out. At some point after that first edit of the lead, another edit was made. Here’s how it reads now, as of 1:15:

The anti-journalist rhetoric that personalities like Donald Trump are spouting these days has helped create an atmosphere of hate aimed at the news media, as if we are now an enemy worthy of targeting. The on-air shooting deaths of a television reporter and photographer in Virginia today appears to have been carried out by a disgruntled ex-employee of the station and completely unrelated to the national political conversation. But it occurs at a time when some extremists are taking the anti-journalist sentiment far too seriously, even to the point of issuing death threats against prominent news media personalities.

So the killings and Donald Trump are completely unrelated. Now I understand. I’d like to suggest a new headline for the DMN post, then: “Amid Hillary Clinton’s Email Scandal, Two Journalists Are Killed.” That headline is just as accurate. And just as boneheaded.

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