M. Alex Johnson – Journalist at Large

An analog journalist in a digital world

Anatomy of a walkback

with 19 comments

Over at msnbc.com, I’ve posted an update on Benjamin Colton Barnes, the former Army private believed to have shot Park Ranger Margaret Anderson in Mount Rainier National Park over the weekend.

Here’s the key passage:

In July, the mother of Barnes’ young daughter said in court papers seeking a protection order that he “has possible PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) issues.” News organizations — including msnbc.com— noted the court filings and reported that Lewis-McChord is considered one of the most troubled bases in the U.S. military, with an alarming record of violent incidents and suicides among veterans returning from Iraq.

But as more has been learned about Barnes, it appears that his troubles may have had little to do with his service in Iraq or his having been stationed at Lewis-McChord.

Military records show that Barnes served in a headquarters communications job in Iraq. A spokesman at Lewis-McChord told The Seattle Times there was no record of Barnes’ having received a Combat Action Badge, indicating he probably never came under fire in Iraq.

There are also hints that Barnes was already disturbed before he entered the Army. Growing up in Riverside County, Calif., he was sent to a community day school for expelled and troubled students as a teenager, the Press-Enterprise newspaper reported.

A reconstruction of Barnes’ life since his discharge by The Seattle Times indicates that Barnes’ erratic post-discharge behavior didn’t seriously begin until this summer, when his relationship with his ex-girlfriend collapsed.

It’s fair to call this a walkback, a journalism term for a story that retreats from news, analysis or implications of a story published earlier.

Here’s why it happened, and why I initiated the follow-up story — it wasn’t assigned to me:

The first story wasn’t wrong. It doesn’t explicitly say that Barnes’ service in Iraq or his time at Lewis-McChord created the conditions that led him to allegedly go off on a shooting spree.

But the implication is certainly there. Barnes’ behavior did fit a statistically significant pattern observed among soldiers returning from Iraq to Lewis-McChord, where PTSD has become an important issue. This was especially significant in the context of his ex-girlfriend’s sworn statement in Pierce County Superior Court documents that he did, indeed, have PTSD and was suicidal.

After that story was published, Brandon Friedman, the well-known military author, objected to the piece in a series of tweets. Friedman was trying to make a larger point about linking PTSD to misconduct by soldiers, concerned that the story fed into public perception of the “crazy vet.”

I disagreed with Friedman, because I believed — and I still believe — that the story was accurate and fair in light of what we could dig up at the time. But I got in touch with Friedman and included comment from him because I thought it was valuable context for a debate I shouldn’t adjudicate.

The important part of that is “in light of what we could dig up at the time.” Since then, we’ve learned more about Barnes, and it suggests that his big troubles began with the breakup of his relationship with his ex-girlfriend last year — well after his discharge in 2009.

Developing stories are just that: developing. They change as new information is learned. In the old days, newspapers I worked for would have done a second-day story that made no mention of the previous day’s reporting, on the theory that today’s report is now the “official” one.

I think that’s dismissive of the reader, and it’s silly, to boot, because five seconds spent on Google will find the earlier story and allow readers to compare the two.

In many respects, I’m still an old newspaper dinosaur. I don’t (yet) buy the abandon-objectivity transparency mantra of many media writers, because that makes it too easy to slide into abandoning impartiality. Like the perfect omelet, objectivity probably is impossible, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth struggling for.

But I do enthusiastically embrace the show-your-work transparency ethic. I trust the reader to recognize that information grows over time, changing the fundamental nature of a story.

Publishing today’s walkback isn’t a way to say I got it wrong yesterday. I didn’t. It’s a way of saying I continued reporting afterward, here’s what I learned, and here’s what it means now.

I’d be interested in your thoughts. Comments are open.

Written by Alex

January 4, 2012 at 12:55 pm

19 Responses

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  1. Here’s a comment, Alex – how about identifying Mr. Friedman as the Director of Online Communications for the Veteran’s Administration, rather than the “well known military author”? With the number of open VA benefits claims (including PTSD) exploding to nearly a million claims awaiting adjudication, a growing backlog of nearly 65% in processing these claims, and other recent high profile PTSD-related events, perhaps Mr. Friedman has an agenda for being vociferous in his protestations. Start pulling on the strings here: http://open.salon.com/blog/content.php?cid=1873503 and here: http://open.salon.com/blog/content.php?cid=1877180

    Richard

    January 5, 2012 at 6:10 am

  2. “Barnes’ behavior did fit a statistically significant pattern observed among soldiers returning from Iraq to Lewis-McChord, where PTSD has become an important issue.”

    Really? And how many veterans go off on a PTSD-fueled shooting spree? Statistically? Ya know there are millions of us, a large number are afflicted with PTS, but when one rarely goes off the deep end, we all get splashed with your journalistic brown matter.

    What you meant to say was that one guy who was a veteran fit what you think is the pattern of behavior your narrow mindedness perceives to be the norm. Maybe you should have listened to Brandon Friedman (he and I are mortal enemies, so it’s hard for me to type that) and spared yourself the embarrassment of hanging your fat ass out for the rest of us to see.

    Jonn Lilyea

    January 5, 2012 at 10:52 am

  3. The problem is that you reported things that were not facts…you reported your own extrapolation of known facts and made a conclusion that those known facts did not back up…and now the known facts show to be false.

    That sir, is not reporting, it is propagandizing.

    You should take note of the way the murder/suicide on New Years day in Coronado CA is being reported. Only known facts. There has been no reporting of “guesses” on the part of reporters. If it had been reported as you reported on Barnes it would read like this…..”A military member, fresh out of the harsh training given to future Navy Pilots, and probably suffering from PTSD, killed three before taking his own life. With violent crimes and suicides at such stageringly high levels since the onset of the two Bush wars of choice, many have fallen in this manner.”

    Get it now?

    Geoff Milke

    January 5, 2012 at 1:19 pm

  4. too fast on the send button………the post above should have said “you reported your own interpretation of known facts”.

    Call that a “walk back” if you want

    Geoff Milke

    January 5, 2012 at 1:22 pm

  5. If these wars taught us anything it’s that this soldier’s job has little to do with whether or not he has PTS, or the diagnosed PTSD. A communications soldier in a headquarters unit could get hit with IDF or an IED on a convoy at anytime. I have yet to see a citation showing correlation between military occupational specialty and PTSD for Iraq or Afghanistan veterans.

    Joe

    January 5, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    • Joe,

      On the flip side, who has come forward from this guy’s unit and verified he had been in some combat action?? None. If this guy had been “in it” somebody would at least speak up and give the benefit of the doubt. And I am a veteran who has been under fire.

      Jon

      January 5, 2012 at 8:01 pm

      • His MOS is irrelevant, frankly. He could have PTSD from a car accident… His veteran status has little to no correlation to his behavior.

        Joe

        January 9, 2012 at 8:32 am

  6. [...] that shit up like ice cream. Alex Johnson, the reporter who first wrote about Barnes for MSNBC, walked back his faulty reportage of that initial reportage. He explained “Barnes’ behavior did fit a statistically [...]

  7. [...] connected Barnes to the “deeply troubled base” of Joint Base Lewis-McChord. While he later walked the piece back, his original reporting joined the media-constructed narrative that JBLM is in crisis without [...]

  8. No, YOU can call it a walkback if you want, and tell yourself that you “continued to report”, and what you know now means something different today than it did before.

    The rest of us are just going to call it like it is: as you said, you got it wrong the first time. You can’t call a bullet back once it’s left the barrel. You took your shot and you missed, and you hurt a lot of people.

    Chris K

    January 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm

  9. Wanna-be “journalists” like Johnson just can’t understand the difference between reporting the facts (or at least what is known at the beginning of what anyone can see is going to be a very complicated story) and editorializing that shows the writer’s bias. It’s a pity he gets paid even a low wage for this shoddy work.

    Jeff Horton

    January 6, 2012 at 7:45 pm

  10. Alex, The problem isn’t that the media (MSNBC in this case) didn’t make a mistake and just go with the “facts known at the time”, the problem is that you guys were all to willing to associate a “crazy vet” with a murder spree, because it fits your preconceived notions of what vets are really like.

    You won’t admit it, but we all know it.

    thebronze

    January 6, 2012 at 8:13 pm

  11. Most white men wanting, or needing, to get job security in the Seattle area are going to go with the politically correct position in that area. The Seattle leadership hates having their . . . . in the wringer: they need the federal money they get from supporting all things military. Yet, they cannot stand the idea of a virile military! It causes quite a conundrum for those castratos (like this “journalist”) trying to please the girls in leadership government roles in Seattle.

    Anne

    January 7, 2012 at 6:18 pm

  12. With the care and compassion typical of liberals, it wasn’t long before every Viet Nam vet was categorized as a crazed, blood soaked, baby raping child murderer suffering from PTSD. We came home alone those days; a plane load gathered from all over the theater would land at Travis and we’d all go our separate ways home.

    There was no internet in those days, so we were truely on our own. Forty eight hours out of the jungle and we were back in the city; no more rifle, still scoping out booby traps, watching out for sudden movements and diving to the sidewalk at loud noises.

    It’s good to see you guys sticking together. You’ve got your heads screwed on straight and not allowing BS such as this to define you.

    Thanks for your service to our country, our families and our way of life.

    MSO

    January 7, 2012 at 8:26 pm

  13. There’s been a concerted effort waged by the subversive Marxist Left ever since the Vietnam War to bash our veterans.

    They’re ususally protrayed by the 5th column leftists in the media and the enteratinment industry as either poor ethnic minorities who were put on point during patrols by their KKK commander to serve as cannon fodder; losers who couldn’t get a “real” job; high school dropouts; retarded White Trash redneck psychos from the South who like raping and killing brown people; drug addicts; thoughtful liberals who opposed the war and questioned why they were there; and homeless, wife beating, mass murderers suffering from PTSD.

    The Patriots in this country aren’t fooled. We know what you’re doing and we hate you for it. Don’t try to play stupid with us. Fuck you. We’re boycotting your bullshit.

  14. [...] all over this topic, by the way, getting the writer of the aforementioned MSNBC article to pen a thorough walkback of his own [...]

  15. [...] all over this topic, by the way, getting the writer of the aforementioned MSNBC article to pen a thorough walkback of his own [...]

  16. Your lying liberal bias is showing, Alex. What sacrifices have you ever made for the people of Amereica?

    Larson E. Whipsnade

    January 11, 2012 at 10:55 am

  17. [...]  Alex Johnson of MSNBC. But his report was a fabrication. Johnson has tried to (in his own words) "walk back" his conclusions without admitting that his early story was made up. Dishonest Johnson's lede was [...]


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