The Breaking News Consumer's Handbook

Friday, September 20, 2013 - 11:55 AM

View the full breaking news handbook below. (On The Media)

This week's shooting at the DC Navy Yard was the latest in a long string of breaking news reporting to get many of the essential facts wrong. 

In fact, the rampant misreporting that follows shootings like this is so predictable that OTM has unintentionally developed a formula for covering them. We look at how all the bad information came out. We suggest ways that the news media could better report breaking news. This time, we're doing something different.

This is our Breaking News Consumer's Handbook.  Rather than counting on news outlets to get it right, we're looking at the other end. Below are some tips for how, in the wake of a big, tragic story, you can sort good information from bad. We've even made a handy, printable PDF that you can tape to your wall the next time you encounter a big news event.

1. In the immediate aftermath, news outlets will get it wrong.

Everyone we talked to made this point. Details on the ground will be sketchy, a shooter may still be active, all the dead may not be accounted for. "whatever you might hear in the first couple of hours after a major news event, you should probably take it all with a grain of salt," says Andy Carvin, senior strategist on NPR's Digital Desk. "It’s quite possible that what you hear as the news stories the next morning – what they focus on might be quite different than the day before."

2. Don't trust anonymous sources. 

Often, news outlets will cite "sources," or a "law enforcement official." "I think you need to be very careful," says Ian Fisher, assistant managing editor for digital operations at the New York Times. "[law enforcement official] could be anything from the FBI to a cop in a car. So you just don’t know and you shouldn’t really trust that."

3. Don't trust stories that cite another news outlet as the source of the information.

"Also be wary of organizations that blindly quote other organizations without solid sourcing," says Fisher. "They aren’t taking a very big chance in doing that. They can always say 'oh, that was them, not us.' So I think that they are a lot less choosy and careful than they would be if their own reporting was attached to it."

4. There's almost never a second shooter.

In the case of the DC Navy Yard shooting, the Sandy Hook shooting, and many others, initial reports included possible second and third shooters. “There’s pretty much never another one,” says Fisher. “So if you hear that, you can almost always discount."

5. Pay attention to the language the media uses.

Whether you realize it or not, the language the media uses tells you how reliable it is. Here's a helpful glossary:

  • "We are receiving reports" - sources are claiming something has happened, but it has not been confirmed.
  • "We are seeking confirmation" - the news outlet is confident, but still can't confirm.
  • "We can confirm" - information has come from multiple sources, and the news outlet feels confident that it can claim something as an actual fact.
  • "We have learned" - how a news outlet declares it has a scoop. As Andy Carvin says "on the one hand, it could mean that they’re the first ones to confirm something. Or they’re going out on a limb and reporting something that no one else has felt comfortable reporting yet."

6. Look for news outlets close to the incident.

"What you want to do is ask yourself who is close enough to this situation," says Craig Silverman of Poynter's Regret the Error column. "In an incident of terrorism or shooting or even when it’s sort of weather focused in a specific area, that’s always your preferred source. Have they actually seen it with their own eyes? Are they actually there, and do they know the area? Really, really, important." 

7. Compare multiple sources.

"If a news organization says 'we can confirm that such and such has happened,' pay attention to what the other networks are saying." says Andy Carvin. "Because ideally you can triangulate that information and get to some nugget of truth. But the fewer examples you have of entities claiming that something has happened, the more wary you should be about it."

8. Big news brings out the fakers. And Photoshoppers.

"There are lots of hoaxsters who know that in this moment people are just grabbing onto any images they can find," says Craig Silverman. "So they might Photoshop something and send it out. Or images that were taken previously find their way to be presented as if they're new. If it’s somebody who’s sharing a photo on twitter, it’s very possible that that photo isn’t one they actually took themselves. You also need to kind of triangulate and see, well, 'has anyone else shared that, and are they giving me a link that I can go to, to actually learn more about this?'"

9. Beware reflexive retweeting. Some of this is on you.

Thanks to Twitter and Facebook, you are a repeater and reporter of information, both good and bad. It is up to you to apply scrutiny to the information you encounter to avoid passing amplifying the same bad information you hope to filter out.

Click the image below for your own printable PDF of the Breaking News Consumer's Handbook.

If you liked this, you should check out our blog, TLDR. Every day, we post smart, incisive coverage of news and internet stuff.


More in:

Comments [14]

NPR, please do not trust Reuters or the AP. They have been given specific orders from their owners to hide and or do not report on some geo political issues. Please research for yourself and trust no one. Government sources are degrading more and more everyday. eg the hospital that Russia supposedly destroyed, still standing and and the Obama admin was blatantly lying about it. This is a huge conspiracy, in case you were wondering. Have some back bone and go after these liars

Nov. 21 2015 06:16 PM
Steven Harrison

Thanks for your words of caution. I hope this makes journalists stop for a moment to consider how justified their otherwise hasty actions actually are. It's a good idea to be skeptical of fresh sources of news.

Aug. 17 2015 05:03 PM
Ben Bradley from North Georgia

My mind stumbled, as it so often does in recent years, when I read this (sorry, this isn't on the topic of the post, but you've put an example of MY topic right in front of me):

"Big news brings out the fakers. And Photoshoppers."

This quote has two things that are paraded out and even punctuated as sentences, but only one is an actual sentence. The second is a sentence fragment, and earlier in my life I went decades without seeing one in commercial writing, other than English textbooks showing "don't do this."

A few years ago I started noticing the increasing prevalence of sentence fragments (in recent commercially published novels and non-fiction, as well as online media sources, not to mention blogs), and wondered if there could be that many bad editors out there. My eventual conclusion was the editors had to be intentionally and knowingly letting sentence fragments stand.

The true conclusion is that the English language is changing (as noticed by some guy named Chaucer), and the sudden acceptance of sentence fragments is one of the latest changes. I've seen several word meanings change (electrocution was originally a means to carry out Capital Punishment with electricity - when I was a child it also meant accidental death by electricity, and now you can be electrocuted if you're only hurt but not killed by electricity! Due to Obama's proposed taxes on "millionaires and billionaires," a millionaire can now mean someone with one million dollars INCOME per year, rather than net worth of a million dollars), but the use of sentence fragments seems more jarring, as it is a change in syntax rather then the meaning of a specific word.

There are still many English websites proscribing sentence fragments, but I've found a few that give advice on the "right" and "wrong" ways to use fragments. I cannot imagine such a thing being written near the start of the World Wide Web, just a short 20 years ago!

I nave never written a sentence fragment myself, other than satirically. Has "On The Media" ever done a story on sentence fragments, or on other ways the language may be changing? I recall a segment on trigger warnings, so certainly the language used by media is a topic. Perhaps you should do a segment on sentence fragments, and maybe other ways English is changing.

For those of us who didn't get the memo.

Jul. 31 2015 12:03 AM
reporter from Round Lake, IL

With all due respect, Mr Goldman, please look at your own house, the OTM.
Hint: Kickstarter story.

Jan. 11 2015 05:04 PM
H.G. Hallam from Michigan

A general comment particularly in the aftermath of the findings of two distinct grand juries. The news media refers to, in the Ferguson, Missouri case, for instance, that 62 witnesses were questioned. It is important to remember that the term "Witness," doesn't necessarily mean the person or persons was an actual (eye)witness to an event or crime or whatever. In the legal community the word witness is used to indicate a person or persons providing testimony, invariably under oath. So it can be easy for a casual listener or observer to draw the wrong inference.

Dec. 15 2014 10:17 AM
billy ray


Dec. 15 2014 03:40 AM
L W Calhoun from Atlanta

During the Gulf War, General Colin Powell gave us a rule for avoiding issuing or accepting false news:

“The first reports from the battle field [or any breaking story] are always wrong.”

Oct. 27 2013 02:22 PM
News Producer

You can have your news NOW or you can have it RIGHT. You won't get both in a breaking news situation.

I work in the news business, and consumers have to accept some of the blame for the "mistakes" in breaking news coverage. I put that in quotation marks, because sometimes we receive information from a reliable source, such as public information officer or a police officer on the scene, and it later turns out to be wrong. It's not anyone's *intent* to get it wrong, but as soon as something happens, viewers start demanding to know what's going on RIGHT NOW!

Consumers call, they tweet, they post on Facebook. In an effort to respond to their demands, and admittedly, to try to beat the competition, we start asking anyone and everyone who might have information to tell us about it, so we can post/tweet/alert them. We're trying to prove that we're on top of the coverage, that they can rely on us (via our newscasts or social media or our website) to bring them important news updates.

Case in point. We got calls from local parents about a high school on lockdown. The school superintendent tells us nothing is going on. The sheriff's office won't answer the phone or email. A county spokesperson tells us a student brought an explosive device to school. So, we go with that, with attribution. It later turns out that a student made some comments that led to the entire campus being searched, but nothing was found. Then everyone -- from law enforcement to said superintendent to our social media consumers -- starts complaining that we got it wrong, we caused a panic, we sensationalized it. The county spokesperson starts getting hammered by other agencies.

If the superintendent had just admitted that they had a bomb threat, we could have said that and been done with it. If consumers didn't demand instant gratification, we could have waited an hour or two and put out correct information. But the bottom line is, as long as the people demand to know what's going on RIGHT NOW, the news media is going to get it wrong sometimes.

Oct. 21 2013 12:30 AM
Bryan A

No. 8. "They're" not "their."

Oct. 03 2013 10:18 PM
Ikaika Hussey

Enjoyed the show. Who's playing that rendition of "Blackbird"?

Sep. 25 2013 04:49 PM
Courtney from Lawrence, Kan.

I mostly just ignore the news media during these kinds of breaking news events now, even NPR. It's too easy to get caught up in the immediacy and drama of it. Better to wait a few days and let actual reporting and investigating fill in the gaps, rather than speculation and clickbaiting.

Sep. 23 2013 05:10 PM
Josh Stearns

It is excellent to see a simple set of reminders for news consumers. For those that want to do a bit deeper, my site "Verification Junkie" pulls together a growing directory of tools for verifying, fact checking and assessing the validity of social media and user generated content during breaking news (and any other time).

And I have pulled together a directory of other links, studies and debates about these issues here: Verifying Social Media Content: The Best Links, Case Studies and Discussion -

Sep. 23 2013 12:28 PM
Brian Woods

OTM - I rarely watch TV, but it was on the evening of the Navy Yard incident. CBS News showed an animation of the shooter, using an assault rifle. A very powerful image, and I was impressed how quickly their graphic arts people were able to generate it. Of course you know (and I happened to learn later) that it was reported that the shooter did not have an assault rifle. However that image still stays with me. News departments need to take great care in presenting early information in images, which seem to have a much longer life in memory than words.

Sep. 22 2013 07:08 PM
fausto chavez

I'm only interested in facts. Cable news is horrible. That's why I have pretty much stopped watching. Rachael Maddow is awesome with her reporting of obscure subjects but she can't do anything else to prove GOP is crazy so I stopped watching because it is beating a dead horse at this point.

Sep. 20 2013 04:59 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Supported by

Embed the TLDR podcast player

TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by Meredith Haggerty. You can subscribe to the TLDR podcast here. You can follow our blog here. I tweet @manymanywords and @tldr.

Subscribe to Podcast iTunes RSS