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Ciara O'Rourke
By Ciara O'Rourke June 18, 2021

Misinformation spreads about Austin shooting reporting

If Your Time is short

  • Two suspects in a June 12 shooting in Austin, Texas, had been arrested by the time this post was shared on social media. 
     
  • The local newspaper initially wrote that it didn’t include the police’s description of one of the suspects because it was “too vague” to be useful in identifying the shooter. 
     
  • The paper has since reported on that suspect’s arrest and published his booking photo. 
 

Fifteen people were wounded and one was killed early in the morning of June 12 after a shooting in downtown Austin, Texas. No suspects were immediately arrested, and as the local newspaper reported on the developing story, it included a caveat. 

"Police have only released a vague description of the suspect shooter as of Saturday morning," the Austin American-Statesman said in an editor’s note on a story published around 6 a.m. on June 12. "The American-Statesman is not including the description as it is too vague at this time to be useful in identifying the shooter and such publication could be harmful in perpetuating stereotypes. If more detailed information is released, we will update our reporting."

Two people have since been arrested, but a screenshot of that editor’s note is still being shared and mischaracterized on social media.

"Austin mass shooter still at large but media won’t provide description because he’s black," a June 15 Instagram post says.

This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

First, some news organizations did report the Austin Police Department's suspect description, including his race. But the Austin American-Statesman’s reason for withholding it was not what was described in this post.

By June 14, two people had been arrested in the mass shooting, which killed a tourist from New York. Jeremiah Roshaun Leland James Tabb was charged with aggravated assault. A 15-year-old was also arrested and charged with deadly conduct. His name has not been released because he is a juvenile. Tabb, who is 17, is being charged as an adult under Texas law.

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Austin police are not seeking any more suspects. But before the arrests, the department issued a press release that said they were looking for "one suspect described as a black male, with dread locks, wearing a black shirt and a skinny build." 

When police announced Tabb’s arrest two days later, the department described him as a "Black male." 

The Statesman refrained from using the police department’s suspect description not because Tabb is Black, but because it was not specific enough to apply to one individual. It’s common for news organizations to withhold such information when the description police provide is so vague that it could apply to a large group of people, regardless of race. 

"We’re sometimes criticized by readers for not including descriptions of possible suspects in a crime," an ABC News affiliate in Cleveland wrote in June 2020. The station, News 5, said that it publishes specific descriptions with identifying factors such as tattoos, scars and vehicle types.

"If a description is vague, and it could literally describe thousands or millions of people, we don’t share it," the station said. "In other words: Race and gender alone are not enough." 

The Associated Press Stylebook, a widely used guide for journalists, advises that news organizations should "consider carefully when deciding whether to identify people by race." Race is pertinent "in cases where suspects or missing persons are being sought," according to the stylebook, but only when "the descriptions provided are detailed and not solely racial."

We rate this post False.

 

Our Sources

Instagram post, June 15, 2021

Austin American-Statesman, At least one of two suspects is a juvenile in Austin shooting that injured 14, June 12, 2021

Tony Plohetski tweet, June 17, 2021

Austin Police Department press release, June 12, 2021

Austin Police Department press release, June 14, 2021

News 5, When we include suspect description in our reporting, and when we don’t, June 23, 2020

Associated Press Stylebook, Race-related coverage, visited June 17, 2021

Austin American-Statesman, Deadly Austin mass shooting began as confrontation between Killeen teenagers, police say, June 16, 2021

Austin American-Statesman, What we know about the mass shooting in downtown Austin Saturday, June 12, 2021

Austin American-Statesman, Second suspect arrested in Austin’s Sixth Street shooting, June 14, 2021

CBS News, At least 1 person killed, more than a dozen injured in downtown Austin shooting, authorities say, June 13, 2021

WSOC-TV, Police: 13 people hurt in downtown Austin, Texas shooting, June 12, 2021

 

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Misinformation spreads about Austin shooting reporting

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