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Somerville Patch 'Ombudsman': Shots That Weren't Fired and Shoplifted Lobsters

On Jan. 18 Somerville Patch posted a misleading article. Here's an apology and an explanation of what happened. Read to the end to learn about shoplifted lobsters.

This is Chris Orchard, editor of Somerville Patch, and I'm writing this post to describe a mistake that ended up on the website Friday night. I want to apologize for that mistake and explain to readers why the mistake happened and what Somerville Patch could have done better.

Although tiny Somerville Patch, unlike a large newspaper or broadcaster, does not have an ombudsman—an independent investigator who represents readers and examines mistakes—I'm writing this post in the spirit of that tradition.

In doing so, I'm hoping that you, the Somerville Patch reader, will accept my apology and continue to view Somerville Patch as a reliable news resource in the community, albeit one that occasionally makes mistakes.

Shots fired, except they weren't

Let me start by describing the mistake.

On January 18, Somerville Patch posted a story, at 9:15 p.m., with the headline, "REPORT: Shots Fired at Super Stop & Shop in Somerville."

The article was sent to our email subscribers as a "Breaking News Alert," and a short description of the article told people, "An unidentified person allegedly opened fire on Super Stop & Shop employees Friday night in Somerville, according to a scanner report."

At 10 p.m. I received a voicemail from Deputy Chief Paul Upton of the Somerville Police Department informing me that no shots had been fired. Upton also sent an email at that time explaining the mistake.

As soon as I learned what had happened I changed the headline to, "CORRECTION: NO Shots Fired at Super Stop & Shop," and I wrote a short paragraph explaining the update. I sent this new headline as a "Breaking News Alert," but due to a glitch in our email system, that alert was never sent.

Readers misled, possibly frightened

As a result of the article, at least two readers contacted Somerville Patch to complain.

On Twitter, one reader posted, "You are kidding me. Stop reporting before facts in."

On Facebook, another wrote, "Maybe you should get your facts straight before possibly starting a panic."

Both readers were correct to call out Somerville Patch on this mistake. Among other things, the initial "Shots Fired" report needs to be seen in the context of the national debate about guns that has grown from the Newtown school-shooting tragedy. In short, people are rightly sensitive to stories about shootings, and our article could have caused panic.

How did this mistake happen?

In an effort to be transparent, I want to let readers know how this mistake happened.

First, I was not the reporter of the original story, so I've tried to piece things together by speaking with that reporter.

As you may know, Somerville Patch has a number of sister sites nearby, in Medford, Arlington, Melrose, Boston and elsewhere. To give those of us who are Patch editors some time off on weekends, we all take turns being "on duty," monitoring breaking news in each other's communities. 

I mention this not to pass the buck, but to let readers know what was happening Friday night when the "Shots Fired" article was posted and to explain why there was a delay in updating the story with more accurate information. When Upton called me Friday night, I was vegging out on the couch, watching movies, unaware that the article had been posted in the first place.

The reporter who was on duty that night had received an email alert from iAlert.com, which monitors police and fire scanner transmissions. The alert said police scanners were "reporting Stop & Shop staff went to confront a shoplifter, the shoplifter opened fire and ran." The reporter also received several emails from a regional Patch editor about these reports.

In his story, this reporter wrote, as stated above, "An unidentified person allegedly opened fire on Super Stop & Shop employees Friday night, according to a scanner report."

He also wrote, at the end, "We'll provide more information as we receive it."

Although this article was technically accurate—there was a scanner alert reporting shots fired, and he was careful to say the reports were alleged and that we would provide an update with more information—it was clearly misleading to some readers.

What we needed to do better

There were a handful of things Somerville Patch should have done to make this article less misleading.

We should have worked more aggressively to seek confirmation from Somerville police, and we should have let readers know we were doing so.

We should have told readers with direct language the report was unconfirmed and we were seeking confirmation.

We should have attributed the information to iAlert.com and not "a scanner report." We didn't hear the scanner transmission, iAlert.com allegedly did.

Perhaps most important, we should not have sent this story as a "Breaking News Alert" until we had more solid information. At Somerville Patch my philosophy is to use breaking news alerts rarely and only for stories I believe are highly important. This story did not pass muster in that regard.

'Getting it first or getting it right?'

Some may wonder if Somerville Patch should have posted the story at all. The words above, "getting it first or getting it right?" come from a headline written by the New York Times' public editor, Margaret Sullivan, about that paper's reporting mistakes made during its coverage of the Newtown shooting.

In her article, Sullivan writes, "The Times can’t get pulled into the maelstrom of Twitter-era news. It has to stand apart from those news sources that are getting information out in a fast, piecemeal and frequently inaccurate way. That process has its own appeal and its own valuable purpose. But The Times should be its authoritative and accurate counterbalance."

That makes a lot of sense for the New York Times. Humble Somerville Patch, it goes without saying, is an entirely different animal.

As a resource for a relatively small community, Somerville Patch strives to inform readers, who are also neighbors, friends and familiar faces, about important local news in a prompt manner, even when that news is still evolving and developing.

What's more, as an online entity, Somerville Patch welcomes contributions from Twitter, Facebook and other facets of the social media world.

If something's going on in Somerville, I try to let readers know what I know, even when I'm still working to collect more information.

In doing so, however, it's important to provide accurate reports, and I never want to mislead readers.

As Sullivan wrote in her New York Times piece, "Journalists have to react quickly. But as they do, high standards and journalistic rigor shouldn’t be on the run too."

That's a principle that's as true at the mighty New York Times as it is here at a local news website in Somerville.

Friday's "Shots Fired" article was an honest attempt to let Somerville Patch readers know about what could have been an important story for the community. But it fell short.

After giving it several days of thought, and realizing that things always look more clear in hindsight, I don't believe it was necessarily wrong to post the story. Rather, I think several mistakes were made in handling the story, especially in regard to sending it as a "Breaking News Alert," not being clear with readers the information was unconfirmed, and not being aggressive enough in seeking confirmation from police.

I apologize for those mistakes. It certainly isn't the first mistake made on Somerville Patch, and it won't be the last. I want to assure readers that at Somerville Patch I'm always striving to be both prompt and accurate in what's reported on the site, and I thank you all for understanding that sometimes my colleagues and I make mistakes. Also, thank you all for your emails, Tweets and Facebook posts letting me know when the site has gotten something wrong.

Shoplifted lobsters: What really happened at the Stop & Shop Friday night

Deputy Chief Upton was kind enough to let me know what really happened at the Stop & Shop Friday night.

According to Upton, a man was observed shoplifting lobsters at the supermarket.

The manager of the store followed the alleged shoplifter, who turned around and said to the manager, "Stop following me or I'll shoot you."

No shots were fired, and the suspect did not show a gun, Upton said.

Nevertheless, police are working to identify the suspect for threatening to commit a crime, he said.

Jesa Damora January 24, 2013 at 04:15 PM
Chris, Thanks for trying to bridge the gap between citizen-led news outlets like this and newspapers, from which more authority is expected and historically observed. This highlights the tough position you, as the guide of this outlet, are put in, and indeed the problem for every hybrid news producer and consumer. The breakdown of what actually transpired in this instance helps. Not sure what the answer might be to creating consistent accuracy, as it probably happened in part because there was no cash to create a trustworthy protocol, and that problem only seems to be getting bigger.

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