The AR-15 has proved to be a popular weapon among mass shooters. Police say it was used by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook, by James Holmes in Aurora, and by Jacob Tyler Roberts in Clackamas, to name only a few. But, despite some early reports coming from the Navy Yard on Monday, it turns out that the increasingly infamous assault rifle was apparently not among the firearms used by Aaron Alexis during his shooting spree. The Associated Press ran the following correction this afternoon:
In some stories that moved Sept. 16 and Sept. 17 about the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard, The Associated Press erroneously reported that the gunman, Aaron Alexis, carried an AR-15. That information was based on federal law enforcement officials who were relying on initial descriptions from the scene and was included in official internal FBI reports summarizing the shooting. However, additional investigation by law enforcement concluded that Alexis carried a shotgun, took at least one handgun from an officer at the scene but did not have or use an AR-15.
Unfortunately, the AR-15 mistake by the AP and a few other outlets wasn’t the media’s only error Monday, nor its worst. That title almost certainly goes to NBC News and CBS News, which both reported what they said was the dead gunman’s identity only to quickly retract those reports after it became apparent that they had IDed the wrong man. NBC News has since attributed the error to misinformation that was passed along to its reporters by law enforcement sources speaking off the record (not unlike the AP’s explanation of its AR-15 error).
It would be nice to think that these types of mistakes would force media outlets to reevaluate how they report details offered by law enforcement officials speaking anonymously as events unfold. After all, there’s probably a reason that the sources aren’t comfortable attaching their names to details of the sort that, if true, would be public knowledge soon enough. But in the meantime, let it serve as yet another reminder to everyone else that early reports from unfolding news events like mass shootings all too often prove inaccurate.