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Frank Gray

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DC shooting coverage sloppy, biased

Years ago, when I was relatively new to this business, I messed up a story. I made a mistake.

So I sat down and had a conversation with myself. If I were an engineer, I thought, and I made a mistake in designing a building and it fell down, I could be held criminally liable. It’s been that way for about 3,800 years, since the time of Hammurabi’s code.

I should try to hold myself to the same standard, I decided.

Of course, simply resolving such a thing doesn’t solve the problem. The fact is, everyone makes mistakes. Doctors leave scissors inside patients sometimes. Engineers design buildings that fall down, and reporters make errors.

Sometimes the mistakes are minor. You misspell someone’s name.

Sometimes they’re major. Killers are misidentified. People are wrongly identified as killers. The wrong people are named as terrorist bombers.

And sometimes, one suspects, errors become driven by an agenda.

Reporters are supposed to be unbiased, objective.

Let’s be honest, though. No one can be completely objective. People are almost always going to come down on one side of an issue or another.

Don’t tell me that Ernie Pyle wasn’t pulling for the Americans during World War II, or that Edward R. Murrow wasn’t pulling for the British during the blitz.

That’s the way it is. It’s been that way since Thomas Paine wrote “Common Sense.”

You just try to keep your biases under control.

And then some guy opened fire at Washington Navy Yard and killed 12 people, and the mistakes began to flow and the agendas reared their heads.

For a little while, some news organizations were identifying the wrong man as the shooter.

That’s what happens, I guess, in an age when everyone is trying to be the first to tweet information and is willing to just brush it off when it turns out they are wrong.

And for a couple of days, some news organizations all over were saying the shooter was carrying several guns, or just an AR-15 rifle.

Some news organizations were reporting that he had a shotgun, but others stuck with the AR-15, even a day after the shooting. One newspaper even put a picture of an AR-15 on its cover, saying the same gun had been involved in another shooting. To some, the story wasn’t about a shooting, it was about a gun.

The AR-15 is, after all, the whipping boy of the gun community. It’s the poster boy for people who want guns outlawed. They’re black and scary-looking. Too bad they don’t all come in pink. (You can get a pink one, by the way.)

Then, it was definitively announced that Aaron Alexis had used a shotgun. The people who hate the AR-15 must have been crushed.

Now, as we read about the 12 dead victims and the shooter, we’re finally getting to the real story. Why are we so slipshod when it comes to granting security clearances? We’re talking about a man who was involved in two previous shooting incidents, who had known anger issues, who had mental health issues and who had told people he was hearing voices, but who still got a high level security clearance.

That’s our problem.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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