When is News Fit to Print?

A Texas paper runs with secondhand info on the Fort Hood shooter

Update, 11/11, 1:09 p.m.: Kamran Pasha has posted a reply in the comments section below.

One of the cardinal rules of the news business is: don’t run with material you can’t confirm. But another is: when big news breaks, don’t get left behind. Sometimes, of course, those rules come into conflict, creating hairy decisions for news organizations. Last week’s mass shooting at Fort Hood—simultaneously a national tragedy and a competitive event among journalists—was one of those times.

There’s no way of knowing how often, in the wake of the shooting, normal journalistic rules surrounding sourcing and attribution were bent or broken in pursuit of a unique angle. But one such example that stands out—less for the egregiousness of the decision than for how clearly it was spelled out—appears in an article that was first published on the Web Sunday by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a McClatchy paper. Written by reporter Barry Shlachter* and headlined “More evidence that Fort Hood gunman held radical beliefs,” the story devotes its first 300 words to a subject many other press accounts were noting—Nidal Malik Hasan’s connections to a Falls Church mosque where Anwar Al-Awlaki, who has been described as a radical imam, once served. But about halfway through, the story shifts:

Contrary to numerous reports that Hasan was a brooding loner in Killeen, a more detailed picture of Hasan has surfaced that said he had at least one close friend, an Army officer who had converted in Islam several years ago. They had worshiped through the night together during the final days of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting holiday.

Tracking down a heretofore-unreported “close friend” of Hasan’s sounds like an impressive scooplet, especially if it promises a more complete picture of the shooter. But what’s up with the oddly roundabout locution (“a more detailed picture… that said he had”)? Some explanation arrives in the next paragraphs:

Kamran Pasha, a Pakistani-American novelist, quoted the Fort Hood officer as saying he befriended the Army psychiatrist, prayed side by side with him hours before Thursday’s mass killings and had once challenged Hasan’s view that Islam condoned suicide bombings.

…The officer, a 22-year Army veteran, declined to be identified or speak to reporters because of his past work in special operations in Iraq, Pasha said. No independent corroboration could be made Sunday.

The following is what the officer purportedly told of his relationship with Hasan, according to Pasha:

In other words, the Star-Telegram hadn’t actually tracked down a close friend of Hasan’s—rather, it had found a novelist who said he had spoken to this unidentified friend, and had decided that, at least in this case, a bit of journalistic telephone passed muster.

This wasn’t the first time Pasha’s account had reached the public. The novelist had written about his conversations with the unnamed officer in a lengthy post that appeared at both his blog and at The Huffington Post. Over the weekend, The Christian Science Monitor referenced that post in its coverage, and the British paper The Daily Telegraph used material from Pasha in its reporting.

But in this instance, the Star-Telegram seems to have gone farther than other American publications in running with uncorroborated, secondhand information. The paper’s reasoning behind its decision is unknown—Shlachter declined to speak on the record, and his editors did not immediately respond to requests for comment—but it’s hard to imagine that this is standard practice. There are good reasons, after all, that newspapers don’t regularly run with unverified material, which run from the outlandish (Could Pasha have been fabricating this unnamed officer?) to the more prosaic (Is there reason to be skeptical of Hasan’s friend’s credibility? How might his words have been distorted in the retelling? Would his account have changed if reporters had been able to interview him directly?) And while the paper was admirably upfront about its inability to confirm what it was reporting, disclosure does not sweep away these concerns.

It may turn out, in this case, that the departure from normal journalistic standards did not result in inaccuracy—certainly, the picture painted by the Star-Telegram story jibes with the emerging portrait of a deeply troubled individual who was driven, at least in part, by extreme religious beliefs. It may even, in a modest way, have deepened our understanding of Hasan. Still, there’s something troubling in the paper’s choice. The shape of the current media environment means that in the wake of an event like the Fort Hood shooting, there are almost countless outlets not just for commentary but also for a sort of first-cut reporting: any moderately savvy news consumer could have found Pasha’s account of his friend’s words, or unfiltered accounts from people who claimed to witness the attack. Much of the value of traditional news organizations now lies in the ability to organize and contextualize this stream of information. But it also rests in maintaining old-fashioned rules about what’s “fit to print”—even, or especially, when they are inconvenient.

*The original version of this story misspelled Mr. Shlachter’s last name. The incorrect spelling was taken from the byline as it appeared on the McClatchy DC site, where the embedded link above leads. The byline is spelled correctly on the Star-Telegram’s version of the story.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.