Devin Scillian: The flow of information in a fast-moving crisis

‘This was a new experience being so pushed and prodded to share disinformation’

Mourners sit at The Rock on the grounds of Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. Alexandria Verner, Brian Fraser and Arielle Anderson were killed and several other students remain in critical condition after a gunman opened fire on the campus of Michigan State University Monday night. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) (Paul Sancya, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Anyone who watched our coverage of the shooting at Michigan State Monday night heard me share (twice, I believe) the well-worn adage that “the first casualty of war is the truth.” 

There are a million issues needing our (and your) attention surrounding the shooting, but I think it wise to take a moment to talk a little about the flow of information in a fast-moving crisis.

I’ve had far more experience with this than I’d prefer, and whatever expertise I have has been hard-won, from the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City to the events of Monday night in East Lansing.  I’ve made my share of mistakes in live news coverage, that’s for sure.  But while the news media has slowly but sensibly prioritized being right over being first, we do so in a digital atmosphere that allows information and disinformation to ping around the globe in the blink of an eye.

Throughout Monday evening, I kept receiving messages via social media, email and text.  Some sought to share information that someone had seen on Twitter or Facebook while others parroted something that had been shared over police scanners. These included frustration from some viewers who couldn’t understand why we weren’t sharing information that was there for the taking from scanner traffic, the unspoken insinuation being that scanner traffic must amount to reliable, official information as it comes straight from dispatchers and officers in the field without any pesky communications directors or journalists acting as middlemen.  (I know they were trying to be helpful, but I got a bit of a kick out of those recommending scanner apps to me.  This is a newsroom; we’ve got more scanners than an x-ray lab at a hospital.)

Scanner traffic is invaluable to a newsroom assignment desk. (Our Tim Pamplin of NIghtCam fame is a scanner savant who uses it the way a spy uses a decoder ring.)  But we also know that what we’re hearing is “chatter”, something closer to a windsock than a compass. It can get us going in the right direction (few things are as chilling as hearing “officer down” on a scanner) but turning that chatter into reliable and accurate information is a central task of what we do. 

Viewers were sending me a name that kept being bandied about on the scanner, a name that in the end had absolutely no relevance to the shooter.  (If you need further reading on the consequences of wrongly attaching a name to a crime, google “Richard Jewell”.)

And speaking of mistakes, in the interest of full disclosure, Monday night we mentioned an unconfirmed report, one that came to us from a police source, that the suspect had been apprehended. That allowed for just a few minutes in which there was a sense that the search for the shooter was perhaps over. That had come directly from a police officer who, it turns out, had been misinformed.  He, too, like any human being, was fallible and susceptible to the allure of “chatter.” We corrected and retracted quickly, but that was, in a way, like listening to scanner traffic.

Scanner traffic that night (and a number of tweets) also suggested gunfire at several other locations including an apartment complex.  Those weren’t true; the gunfire was limited to Berkey Hall and then the MSU Student Union.  There was also talk on the scanner about what the shooter had with him when he was found.  It may turn out to be true, but there’s a reason that none of that has been yet verified by MSU police.

I had a Twitter feed open at the anchor desk that was pegged to the MSU hashtag and while it shared plenty of sincere empathy and fear over what was happening, it also quickly became a vomitorium of slander, amateur detective dabbling, and tasteless attempts at humor.  In particular, some users were circulating photos that clearly didn’t match the description given by MSU PD, perhaps hindering efforts to find the real shooter.

I’m pretty proud of the sober approach we took into the shooting at MSU, and, for that matter, the shooting at Oxford High School. I’m heartened that our priority isn’t, well, priority. But I’m constantly reminded that this has become an increasingly difficult task with all of those ones and zeros zinging around us at the speed of light. 

I’ve covered so many tragedies over the years, but this was a new experience being so pushed and prodded to share disinformation.  Winston Churchill said that a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth even gets its pants on.  What would Sir Winston make of Twitter?

About the Author:

Devin Scillian is equally at home on your television, on your bookshelf, and on your stereo. Devin anchors the evening newscasts for Local 4. Additionally, he moderates Flashpoint, Local 4's Sunday morning news program. He is also a best-selling author of children's books, and an award-winning musician and songwriter.