Real-time coverage of mass shootings is notoriously bad. But last night's coverage of the San Bernardino mass shooting went beyond bad: It veered into borderline Islamophobia.
As a search for the suspects dragged on for hours, speculation about the perpetrators' identities swirled on social media. Erroneous reports from major news outlets only added to the chaos and confusion.
Here are two examples of particularly bad errors — and one example of deliberate anti-Muslim fear mongering — that illustrate the problem, and why it's so dangerous when sensationalist, rush-to-the-news coverage meets incidents that play into America's deepest fears about terrorism and stereotypes about Muslims.
What's in a name?
Several news outlets, including a reporter with the Los Angeles Times, incorrectly reported that the San Bernardino police had released the name of one of the suspects:
People on social media immediately began questioning the accuracy of this information. The name sounded suspiciously close to the name of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and was an unlikely name for a Qatari citizen, in part because in the Arabic language, which is the language spoken in Qatar, doesn't even have the letter "p."
The questioning quickly turned to outright mockery:
Tayeep bin Ardogan is not a real name. Tayeep bin Ardogan is not a real name. Tayeep bin Ardogan is not a real name. #SanBernadino— Ahmad Al-shathry (@Abunass3r) December 3, 2015
At this point we might as well report the suspect’s name is Keyser Söze. Sheesh.— Andy Carvin (@acarvin) December 3, 2015
(Keyser Söze is the fictional villain from the 1995 film The Usual Suspects starring Kevin Spacey; the entire plot of the film is about figuring out the true identity of the mythical "Keyser Söze," a legendary master criminal. The joke here is extra funny because in the film, Keyser Söze is Turkish, just like the "Tayyeep Bin Ardogan" name seemed to be.)
LA Times reporter Rick Serrano eventually deleted his earlier tweet and posted a correction:
SB police clarifying that 2nd name was not released by them. Appears now to be a hoax. We are disregarding.— Rick Serrano (@RickSerranoLAT) December 3, 2015
But the damage had already been done:
Here's someone who won't be disregarding. pic.twitter.com/96yjqrGvOV— Imraan Siddiqi (@imraansiddiqi) December 3, 2015
The two shooters were eventually legitimately identified by the San Bernardino Police Department as Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 27.
Right name (sort of), wrong guy
The Daily Beast, trying to find as much information as it could on the suspect as quickly as possible (just like every other news outlet was doing), published a photo of a "Syed R. Farook," identifying him as the alleged shooter.
Unfortunately, the guy whose picture was posted was Syed Raheel Farook — the brother of the actual shooting suspect, Syed Rizwan Farook. In other words, the Daily Beast published a photo of an innocent man and labeled him a mass murderer.
To his credit, Noah Shachtman, the Daily Beast's executive editor, owned up to the error on Twitter (in addition to publishing a correction as well as updating the original article) and took steps to try to undo some of the damage by deleting all of the Daily Beast's social media posts with Raheel's photo in them:
.@thedailybeast improperly ID'd Syed Raheel Farook as a #SanBernadino suspect. (1/3)— Noah Shachtman (@NoahShachtman) December 3, 2015
Police now say the suspect is Syed Rizwan Farook, Raheel's brother. (2/3)— Noah Shachtman (@NoahShachtman) December 3, 2015
To protect Raheel's privacy, we are deleting all social media posts w Raheel's picture. We sincerely regret the error. (3/3)— Noah Shachtman (@NoahShachtman) December 3, 2015
Mixing up two brothers both named "Syed R. Farook" is an understandable mistake, but it exemplifies the inherent challenge of trying to report on breaking news stories and the consequences that can happen when you get it wrong. The innocent man's photo was spread around social media, unjustly vilifying him and potentially putting his life in danger. And deleting the erroneous posts and publishing a correction will not make it go away. It's on the internet, where things last forever.
Although the Daily Beast's Noah Shachtman says (and I have every reason to believe him) that his organization actually did a lot to try to verify the information — making dozens of calls, sending reporters to various Farook family homes, knocking on neighbors' doors, and combing through public records — they still got it wrong.
Some people were less careful, trolling Facebook for people with names similar to that of the alleged shooter and sharing their profile information on social media. One poor guy apparently finally had enough:
The assholes are already circling. Please stop harassing people. Nothing has been confirmed yet. #SanBernardino pic.twitter.com/K4jB2Jp30b— Amarnath Amarasingam (@AmarAmarasingam) December 3, 2015
It's bad enough when a responsible media organization gets it wrong; it's even worse when random people decide they're going to be amateur sleuths and just start harassing people and calling them terrorists. That's how lives get ruined.
This is the cover the New York Post decided to run on Thursday, the day after the San Bernardino shooting:
The motive for the attacks is still unknown. As reported by Reuters:
Officials from San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan to President Barack Obama said the attack may have been an act of terrorism but that a motive had not yet been determined. "It is possible that this was terrorist-related. But we don't know," Obama told reporters at the White House. "It is also possible that this was workplace-related."
The only reason to highlight the religion of the attackers at this point is to link Islam to murder, which spreads fear and hatred of Muslims — in other words, Islamophobia.