There is a telling disclaimer in NPR’s report on the police shooting of a 16-year-old girl, Ma’Khia Bryant, in Columbus, Ohio, which was initially blasted out on Twitter as “cops shoot unarmed black girl” when it actually turns out that video shows that Bryant was in the process of stabbing another black teenage girl when she was shot. NPR concludes its writeup with this warning:
This is a developing story. Some facts reported by the media may later turn out to be wrong. We will focus on reports from police officials and other authorities, credible news outlets and reporters who are at the scene, and we will update as the situation develops.
This is the nature of journalism on a deadline: You may have the facts wrong, and if so, you need to correct them later on. But the police do not have that luxury. If you watch the video of the shooting, you can clearly see that the officer had to make a split-second decision whether to let Bryant stab someone, or whether to use the only force available that could stop the stabbing. As I noted yesterday, some police cases do not unfold that quickly — Derek Chauvin’s killing of George Floyd did not — but many do. Journalists who have occasion to go back and realize that they have reported some key facts wrong in the heat of a breaking story should have a little more humility in judging people whose jobs involve making graver decisions in less time with no ability to edit their own mistakes later.