It Is Not OK for Fox to Get It So Wrong in Baltimore Monday

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The Baltimore Sun

It Is Not OK for Fox to Get It So Wrong in Baltimore Monday

Maybe Fox should stick to opinion and avoid trying to cover challenging news stories.

This is the online version of Fox News reporting that police shot a man in the back. But no one was shot. (Image: FoxNews.com screengrab)

Given its performance in Baltimore, I am starting to wonder if maybe Fox News should only do opinion and stay away from covering challenging news stories like the one still playing out on the streets of Baltimore.

I know that might sound extreme, but in the volatile situation that is Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, you would think the last thing any reporter or producer would do is report any act of violence, particularly a police shooting, that it had not absolutely confirmed and vetted several different ways.

But that's just what happened Monday afternoon with Fox News reporting that police shot a black man in the back as he was running from them. It was on Fox air, Fox Twitter accounts and Fox online.

Mike Tobin reported the shooting from Pennsylvania and W. North Avenues for the channel. But what he thought he saw appears to have never happened.

"We screwed up," anchor Shepard Smith said after police tweeted and explained that a man who was running from police threw a gun to the ground. Baltimore police said no shots were fired by law enforcement officers.

The weapon apparently discharged and the man then fell down. Police say they took the man in an ambulance to a hospital for observation.

"Mike Tobin thought he saw somebody get shot," Smith told viewers. "... And what we have here is nothing."

Now, you might think we should at least give Smith and Fox News credit for a fast, clean correction.

A Baltimore City police spokesman said a report of a man being shot in the Penn North neighborhood on Monday is false. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

"On behalf of  Mike Tobin and the rest of our crew there, and the rest of us at Fox News, I’m sorry for the error and glad we were able to correct it quickly,”  Smith told viewers.

But Fox News could be wrong again as I write this post: What if the police were lying?

What Fox should have done is say that their first report of a shooting was unconfirmed and police are now denying it happened.

And then, Smith should have told viewers his channel does not know what the truth is unless they accept the police department's unconfirmed report.

"We can't confirm, so we don't know," is what Fox should have said.

Here's the standard: Only report what you know to be true by your best journalistic standards.

In fairness, video shows that it was a highly confusing and emotional scene with eyewitnesses also saying they saw a man get shot.

But the press is supposed to be smarter and more cautious than people on the street, isn't it? Especially in as hyper-charged, amped-up situation as this.

I am sure someone at Fox News will tell me about the "fog of war" and how anyone can make a mistake.

But it's the fog of a news infrastructure that failed to keep information that could have triggered another riot off the air until it was vetted and then vetted again.

And then it went with an unconfirmed police statement.

The other major cable channels and networks that I saw did not report the incident the way Fox did in the first place. They hung back until some of the "fog" cleared.

Maybe I feel this way in part because this is my town and it seems so vulnerable right now. But this story is way too big for the report-it-first, confirm-it-later reporting that is accepted as standard operating procedure in TV news, Internet and social-media reporting.

It's too big for Fox News to have sent someone like Geraldo Rivera here to cover it for Sean Hannity's show last week. Rivera told State Sen. Catherine Pugh the people on the streets of Baltimore seemed to be looking for "trouble." She had to tell him that wasn't what they were looking for at all.

City Council member Nick Mosby had the same kind of encounter with Fox News correspondent Leland Vittert the night of the riots when he tried to offer some context on the "socioeconomics of urban America," only to finally say he thought Vittert missed the point of "everything" he "tried to articulate."

To the reporters still in Baltimore: Stop it. Raise your games. Rise to the level of this story - or get out of town.

Go cover a less challenging story.

David Zurawik

David Zurawik is a television critic and media reporter for the Baltimore Sun.

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