Anatomy of a walkback
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.