Reactions to the Aurora shooting: the wrong, the sad, the irrelevant

How one tragedy led to many premature conclusions

It doesn’t take long for news to travel about a tragedy like Friday’s midnight shooting at a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, CO, anymore. But the pressure for outlets to keep pace with social media and find new angles on the story when updates aren’t readily available has resulted in reactive journalism ranging from the curious to the entirely inappropriate.

Leading those in the “inappropriate” category was ABC News, which was forced to issue an apology on Friday after Brian Ross, its investigative correspondent, suggested that suspect James Holmes had Tea Party connections.

“There’s a Jim Holmes of Aurora, CO, page on the Colorado Tea party site as well, talking about him joining the Tea Party last year,” Ross said on Good Morning America. “Now, we don’t know if this is the same Jim Holmes. But it’s Jim Holmes of Aurora, CO.”

He later retracted the statement on air and ABC issued the following comment:

An earlier ABC News broadcast report suggested that a Jim Holmes of a Colorado Tea Party organization might be the suspect, but that report was incorrect. ABC News and Brian Ross apologize for the mistake, and for disseminating that information before it was properly vetted.

Under the apology online, commenters accused ABC of a liberal media bias and some called for Ross’s resignation. Many drew parallels to the media reaction after the attempted assassination of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in January 2011, when some news outlets assumed the suspect must be from the Tea Party.

If some liberal outlets can be accused of politicizing the tragedy, one on the right posted an opportunist response. In an astonishing manipulation of available information, Joel Pollak of Breitbart News published an “exclusive” first thing in the morning claiming he had evidence that the suspect was a registered Democrat, but that he couldn’t be sure it was the same James Holmes. Pollak was later forced to post an update stating that new evidence showed the suspect was not registered to vote.

Twitter hosted some of the snarkiest responses to the political posturing, including Alex Pareene, a political writer for, who tweeted: “the only appropriate response to a tragedy of this magnitude is endless sniping about everyone else’s inappropriate responses.”

A more considered effort came from David Weigel at Slate, who wrote some guidelines about politicizing the tragedy, including:

What would it mean if he was a Democrat? What would it have meant if he was a Tea Partier? Probably nothing.

And still other reactions were downright irrelevant. According to’s international editor, Max Fisher, some reports felt the need to mention that the shooter was not Muslim. In Fisher’s words: “Well, he’s not Eskimo either.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Hazel Sheffield is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @hazelsheffield. Tags: , , ,