Crime

Deer Creek Middle School shooting media coverage: Misinformation, mispronunciation and a cameo by Jack Hanna

When big news like yesterday's shootings at Deer Creek Middle School breaks, a growing number of people turn to social media, even though that medium isn't always reliable. For every positive online development, like the launch of a Facebook page celebrating hero Dr. David Benke, there were false rumors about impending attacks on other Jeffco schools.

That's one reason why plenty of folks continue to rely on old-school electronic media -- television and radio -- to get the latest updates on such stories. But a sampling of these offerings yesterday provoked eye-rolling as well as admiration.

Example: I learned about the shootings while listening to KHOW, with hosts Dan Caplis and Craig Silverman interrupting commercials to pass along info in a serious and sensitive way. But when it became clear that the body count wasn't enormous and the accused shooter, later identified as Bruco Eastwood, was in custody, they temporarily dropped the Deer Creek subject in favor of interviewing a previously scheduled guest: animal expert Jack Hanna.

This kind of decision-making process was seen on assorted TV outlets as well. For instance, Channel 9 ran the regular network newscast at 5:30 p.m. rather than continuing with local coverage -- which was strong for the most part, but with a few bumps along the way. For instance, the wife of David Benke was interviewed, and when anchor Mark Koebrich asked if his name was pronounced "Banky" or "Binky," she said "Benky," with an "e" -- after which Koebrich continued to refer to him as "Dr. Binky."

Of course, TV stations can't be blamed for passing along incorrect information from law enforcement. Take the afternoon announcement by Jefferson County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Jacki Kelley that neither Reagan Weber nor Matt Thieu, Eastwood's victims, had sustained life-threatening injuries. Hours later, it was revealed that Thieu had actually been shot in the chest and was listed in critical condition at The Children's Hospital -- and that prognosis is still current at this writing.

Then again, I didn't see any subsequent reports noting that the earlier Thieu info had been wrong, or at least misleading. As is typically the case in events like this one, TV types are so busy filling airtime that they seldom pause long enough to put things in context.

Maybe that's why social media and simple word-of-mouth communication seems to be cutting into old media's previous dominance in this area. At my house, for instance, we knew the identities of Weber and Thieu over an hour before their names were mentioned on TV and radio thanks to the electronic grapevine: My daughters are good friends with the older sister of one of Weber's besties and got the scoop via text. The news spread virally from there.

We live in a brave new communication world, where media consumers can seek out their own updates -- rather than waiting through an interview with Jack Hanna.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts