EDITORIAL | Sensationalism versus the facts

Last week’s killing of three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo., that ended with the suspect turning himself in after an hours-long standoff with police and several hostages is the most recent tragedy to gain national media attention. 

What has been learned about the suspect’s motives in the aftermath of this senseless act of domestic terrorism brings up a question: Is the national media partly to blame?

Suspect Robert Lewis Dear is alleged to have made comments about “body parts” to investigators after his surrender, leading many in the national media to speculate the Planned Parenthood shooting suspect was motivated by false information that came out several months ago and was exacerbated by Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, that the organization was harvesting and selling fetal body parts.

Most people not watching Fox News were right to quickly dismiss this rumor, but the conservative spin machine that is Fox had commentators assessing these false allegations and, of course, Fiorina ready to continue talking about how she’d seen the gruesome video footage to support her allegations.

Other national media outlets ran with the story, and some did so with an interesting approach: They investigated. 

Fiorina has said she doesn’t believe her misinformation and high criticism of Planned Parenthood had anything to do with Dear allegedly killing three people — one a respected local law enforcement officer — and holing up in the Colorado Springs clinic. It may be a coincidence, but that’s speculation for a larger media outlet to cover.

Most all of those large media outlets did run some sort of Planned Parenthood “body parts” story, however, and while many were likely not convinced of its validity, they ran it anyway. A lot of people tuned in.

People are responsible for their own actions, so there is no way of saying anyone is at fault for what happened in Colorado Springs other than the alleged suspect, who isn’t likely to say Fox News and Fiorina told him to do it.

What needs to be addressed is how often false information makes it on the news. In this brave, new world of 24-hour cable news, competition is fierce; everyone wants to get the information out first. Then there’s this need to not only disseminate but to entertain. Rather than finding more news, sometimes outlets will just focus on one or two issues and beat them to death.

We think reporting the news is essential to educating society about current events, social issues and public safety matters, but we also believe fact-checking should come before reporting. 

Not everyone who sees allegations like the Planned Parenthood “body parts” story will come back for the follow-up report stating those rumors were found to be false. If the national media had just waited for the verdict on Capitol Hill, reports would have been two minutes long and simply stated that a recent rumor was put out and found to be untrue, and then moved on to the next story or maybe some dramatic weather forecasts.

People are impressionable, especially when it comes to listening to their media of choice. Journalists in any medium have a responsibility to their readers, viewers and listeners to get the information right and not go chasing windmills. 

We’re looking forward to hearing new information about the Colorado Springs’ Planned Parenthood tragedy as it becomes available; we hope it is nothing but the facts.


[Editor's note: This editorial was written before the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 2.]