WRONG CALL: On Friday afternoon, the folks at Fox News went on breaking news mode. They busted out a bright yellow “alert” scroll, and switched gears to focus on the developing news of a shooting in Connecticut. On cable news and online, new details were emerging fast and speculation was rampant, but it didn’t take long for Fox, the leading cable news channel, to trumpet it had a picture of the suspected killer.
“We’ve got some pictures. We want to make sure we’ve got the right guy before putting his picture on the air,” anchor Trace Gallagher said.

Minutes later, the picture was up. Unfortunately for Gallagher and millions of Fox viewers, it was a portrait of a man who happened to share the suspected killer’s name and zip code.

It is the latest mistake to occur in the rush to be first with a TV or online scoop. Let’s recap from this year: CNN and Fox News flubbed the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act; ABC News’ Brian Ross fingered the wrong man soon after a shooting in Aurora, Col., and various news outlets, including Reuters and the Weather Channel, reported false news in their coverage of Hurricane Sandy, including that the New York Stock Exchange was under three feet of water.

This time, the spread of the incorrect news followed a familiar pattern. As soon as Connecticut authorities identified by name the suspected killer, everyone with a Facebook profile knee-jerked to look for the name among their friends list, as if six degrees of acquaintance from the shooter might provide some clarity on an unfathomable tragedy. Eventually, one intrepid young man tweeted a screengrab of the Facebook profile of a man with the suspect’s name who happened to be from Newtown, Conn. Like clockwork, Fox News, Buzzfeed, Slate and Gawker picked up the photo. On Fox News, Gallagher qualified his ID of the suspected killer with an “apparently.”

With such a prominent platform on several outlets, the image was retweeted by hundreds and seen by thousands more, eventually prompting the innocent man to issue an exasperated plea in all caps on his Facebook account, “It wasn’t me I was at work. It wasn’t me.” 

It is not uncommon for reporters to make mistakes as they’re frantically trying to learn the scope of a story, says Craig Silverman, the noted author of the “Regret the Error” blog at the Poynter Institute, which just this week compiled the year’s most egregious corrections.

“What’s different today is how fast the mistakes can spread, and how quickly other journalists and news organizations re-report and republish these errors without first practicing verification on their own,” Silverman said. “Another distressing aspect is the fact that you rarely see full and sincere corrections issued just as quickly as the false info. Some news organizations simply delete the page with the incorrect material, and often all you get is a statement from their PR person later. That’s not being accountable, and it just compounds the damage.”

Gawker and Buzzfeed retracted the image, but Fox seems to have disappeared Gallagher’s broadcast without appending a correction. The video was available up to 4 p.m. Representatives for the network did not respond to requests for comment.

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