Fort Hood: Speculation vs. facts

Yesterday a U.S. Army major opened fire on a military processing center at Fort Hood in Texas, killing 12 people and wounding 30, according to various media reports. Whenever major news breaks, information flies around fast and much of it turns out to be inaccurate.

This case was no different.

Early reports indicated that there were three shooters. Then there were reports that one of the shooters had been killed. Then there were reports that the main suspect -- Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan -- was the shooter who had been killed. Another report said a police officer had been killed. As I write this, the latest news is that there was only one shooter and he's not dead but, rather, in stable condition after being shot. And the police officer who shot Hasan is injured but recovering from her injuries.

It is so difficult to get accurate information at times like this. When the media reported each of the things above, they were sourcing the claims to officials who spoke on the record. I believe the same official who reported that the suspect had been killed was the one who later said he was alive. So these reporters and editors weren't exactly running wild with questionable information. They did their best even if it turned out that a lot of information was incorrect.

Nevertheless, let's look at some of the other issues in how this news was handled, early on.

I'm actually glad that there wasn't any immediate speculation (that I saw or read, at least) as to whether the act of terror was done by Muslims. Media outlets were extremely careful to not even bring up the issue of the U.S. military's current battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. I only wish they wouldn't speculate at all -- the discussion I listened to (I forget which cable outlet) about whether the shooters (yes, plural) were suffering from post traumatic stress disorder was embarrassing and a waste of everybody's time. I don't mind a discussion of various possible motivations or a look at military terrorism in the past -- which would bring up everything from the Weather Underground to disgruntled soldiers to Muslim attacks -- but those discussions need to be careful and balanced.

Moving on, one NBC report I read said that the suspect had an "Arabic-sounding name." I'm not quite sure what that even means. The line was later removed and then modified. Once the name was released, more details began to trickle out. ABC News' Brian Ross described the suspect as a "recent convert to Islam." Turns out he is Muslim but is not a recent convert, having been raised in Islam.

Soon there were other bits and fragments that indicated more of a religious angle. There were reports from a retired colonel who worked with Hasan. He said that Hasan had said Muslims should stand up and and "fight against the aggressor." He also reported that Hasan was almost happy about the recent deathly shooting by a Muslim at a Little Rock military recruitment center.

Later in the day, this web posting allegedly made by Hasan came to light. In it, he defends the morality of suicide bombing. Here's how the Associated Press quoted it:

"To say that this soldier committed suicide is inappropriate. Its more appropriate to say he is a brave hero that sacrificed his life for a more noble cause," said the Internet posting. "Scholars have paralled (sic) this to suicide bombers whose intention, by sacrificing their lives, is to help save Muslims by killing enemy soldiers."

One web site that did a good job of posting information and sourcing it well was The Lede Blog at the New York Times. You can start at the bottom and scroll up to get an idea of how details about the shooting and the shooter emerged. It runs from 4:07 PM when the first post was published and updates continue every few minutes throughout. There isn't much discussion of religion, though. But an actual Times article about the suspect discusses his religion and how it relates to the shooting quite well.

There are, in fact, many good stories out there right now that neither over- nor under-play Hasan's religion and the role it may have played in the shooting. But for an example of a major paper that didn't handle it well, check out the lead story from the Los Angeles Times.

Now, I first came across this story shortly after it was published last night. I monitored it for several hours assuming it would be updated. It had not been updated by the time I had to give up and call it a night (or early morning).

FortHoodGateThe three reporters and additional contributor who penned the 18-paragraph story didn't think that it's relevant that Hasan had praised Muslim suicide bombers or that former colleagues report that he was pleased with Muslim shootings against military institutions or that Hasan's family says he was distressed by news he faced deployment to the Middle East. None of these things, apparently, are newsworthy to the Times, at least not in comparison with similar reports elsewhere.

The words "Muslim" and "Islam" don't appear in the early story. Instead we get this:

Base personnel have accounted for more suicides than any other Army post since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, with 75 tallied through July of this year. Nine of those suicides occurred in 2009, counting two in overseas war zones.

Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army's deputy chief of staff, has been leading an effort to reduce the number of Army suicides, which has climbed sharply this year, possibly as a result from long and repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

That is all very interesting but I am not sure what it has to do with the tragic loss of life Ft. Hood experienced yesterday.

The suspect was never deployed -- much less in a long or repeated fashion -- to Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere else. And precisely no one committed suicide yesterday. This story isn't long -- maybe 40 sentences in all. To waste valuable space on something that doesn't really relate to the incident at hand -- particularly while working way too hard to avoid the big elephant in the room -- just shows bad news sense.

There's being cautious and then there's just being uninformative.

An update now: The latest Los Angeles Times update on this story does include a wide range of information. It's possible that it was hard -- especially in an era of shrinking newsrooms -- for a major West Coast newspaper to gather its limited East Coast and Texas resources quickly. Still, other news organizations got the job done.

We'll be looking at some other coverage of this tragic story as the day continues. Please let us know if you've seen particularly good or bad coverage. And, obviously, this is the place to discuss the media coverage -- not to vent about the military policies linked to this tragedy or to make hateful, simplistic statements about Islam.

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