The trouble with breaking news


My husband drew my attention today to something worrisome. He’s a frequent visitor to the breaking news site here in Chicago and recently he noticed something fishy going on with a particular story. 

The story as it currently looks now is here. As you can see when you look at the dateline, the story has been updated. This happens often with breaking news stories as more information comes in and reporters are able to get more of the story. But what was it updated from in this case? 

Thanks to some Googling, we were able to find the text of the story as it originally appeared on Chicago Breaking News. Here it is in case the online version goes away: 

Posted: Wednesday, 12 May 2010 9:06AM

Possible hate crime charges in robbery of Jewish man on CTA

CHICAGO (WBBM) — Hate crime charges are being considered against five people who, police say, robbed a man early this morning on a CTA train.

Police say it was just after midnight. A group of mostly teenagers surrounded a man on a Red Line train. 

One took his cell phone. He resisted. Then they jumped him, beating him.

They got off the train at Grand Avenue. 

The victim got off at Division and stopped some cops on the street.

Five suspects were soon in custody, identified by the victim.

Police say he was wearing a yarmulke and prosecutors are considering hate crime charges, suggesting he was targeted because he’s Jewish.

As you can see, it was originally reported as a possible hate crime. The Chicago Breaking News story was later changed to a second version that is also not available on their site, but we found it here

The most interesting part is the reaction of the victim upon being told by friends that the theft of his phone was being billed as a hate crime:

He said he first heard of the hate-crime angle when a friend told him of Internet news reports of the incident. “I was confused because the police didn’t mention it, so it came out of nowhere,” he said.

If you were to read the story as it looks today though, you wouldn’t see this quote or even any mention of a possible hate crime. 

Many people did see the original version though, even people who were friends of the victim. The question then arises, if the police didn’t mention that this might have been a hate crime and the victim didn’t think it was a hate crime, who decided that it was a “possible hate crime?” I hope the answer isn’t what I think it is.

UPDATE: I spoke with the Tribune’s James Janega about this on Friday, May 14. He said he will look into it and get back to me sometime this week. Any information I receive will be posted here as it comes in.

UPDATE II: James got back to me about this some time ago, but I’ve only now gotten around to updating this post. The source for the information that this was a possible hate crime was the police. While that may satisfy some, several people I spoke with agreed that a lone policeman’s hypothesis or even the word of a police spokesman is insufficient to put such an allegation into the story.

One of the people who felt this way is the person in charge of the Sun-Times News Group’s breaking news service (sort of a Chicago-area Associated Press). He actually recalled coming in to work the day this happened. One of his people was concerned that they weren’t on the “hate crime angle.” After looking at the details, he assured them that there wasn’t enough there to call it a hate crime. I guess that’s why the STNG wire is a paid service while Chicago Breaking News is free for all. 



  1. Anonymous June 14, 2010

    So, the editor of a wire service is the right one to make a call on whether it was a hate crime? If the police investigate it as such and call it such, then why not report it? If they backtrack later, that’s not a news organization’s fault.

  2. Anna Tarkov June 14, 2010

    The editor of a wire service doesn’t make the call on whether or not it’s a hate crime. He DOES however make the call on whether or not to report the possibility that it’s a hate crime. Police sometimes say that something is a possible this or that, but that doesn’t mean it should be reported. There were no doubt people who saw the original report or the second version and didn’t see the final iteration. Thus those untold numbers of people still think it was a possible hate crime, a headline that’s a lot more sexy than ‘Man’s Cell Phone Stolen on El Train.’ You see what I’m getting at here?

  3. Craig Newman June 14, 2010

    Thanks for the followup, Anna. It is an interesting case study, as we got to briefly discuss in person the other day.
    Reporting that something is a hate crime is a pretty serious step to take on just one source’s say-so, though not necessarily wrong on their part. But for a service like the Sun-Times Media Wire, upon which almost every media outlet in the city depends for breaking news items, to do so on suspect reporting would be quite a serious break in reporting fundamentals and media responsibility. Many organizations take STM content straight from the wire to their sites. When you’re talking about something like a racially sensitive story like a hate crime, that has a potentially far-reaching and negative affect in the community.
    That would have to be a large part of the thinking in the STM editor’s head.

  4. Anna Tarkov June 15, 2010

    Craig, that’s a good point. I guess from that perspective, STNG has a greater responsibility than Chicago Breaking News. Like I told James, I actually think there’s a better way to deal with the fact that stories there change as more info comes in. What they could do is not remove any text from a story, but just add to it. Or there could be some other method. Whatever is done, there’s gotta be a way to ensure that incorrect info isn’t spread to too many people.

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