SMU panel addresses challenges of informing public on night of Dallas police ambush

A distinguished panel at SMU examines media behavior in the July shootings that left five officers dead in Dallas.

Dallas Mayor Rawlings greets Mark Hughes, the man falsely identified as a suspect. Photo by Kim Leeson.

By Marc Ramirez
The Dallas Morning News

As the July 7 tragedy unfolded in downtown Dallas, ultimately claiming the lives of five police officers, city officials and media were forced to quickly sift through imperfect information to determine how to inform the public.

Dallas Mayor Rawlings greets Mark Hughes, the man falsely identified as a suspect. Photo by Kim Leeson.
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings greets Mark Hughes, the man falsely identified as a suspect in the July 7 shootings, during Wednesday's Sammons Lecture.
Photo by Kim Leeson. 

"We're doing all this, and at the same time your soul is crying because you know five lives have been lost," Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said. "How you separate emotions from those decisions is important."

Those challenges were among the issues discussed at "Making Sense of a Tragedy in Real Time: Media Coverage of the Dallas Ambush," a panel discussion presented Wednesday evening as this year's Rosine Smith Sammons Lecture in Media Ethics at Southern Methodist University.

The conversation, held at the university's Owen Arts Center, focused on the events of that night, when gunman Micah Johnson targeted police officers, killing five and wounding nine, as a protest march concluded in downtown Dallas.

In addition to Rawlings, the panel featured Dallas Morning News editor Mike Wilson and KTVT-TV (Channel 11) reporter Steve Pickett, each addressing the ethical questions that arose during the crisis for about 150 people in attendance, many of them SMU journalism students.

The rising influence of social media became clear. By a few minutes after 9 p.m. July 7, five minutes after the gunman first began firing at officers, Twitter was already rampant with reports of shots downtown, the Morning News' Wilson noted.

That in itself posed an ethical question: What could the media report and when?

Despite the competitive nature of the business, Wilson said, "we're not getting more points for being 90 seconds ahead of Channel 11. We get points for being right. We're constantly at risk of reporting something that turns out to be untrue."

Pickett agreed.

"The ethical decisions about what to report and when is critical," he said. "That needle moves as more information comes in. But I'm nothing without attributing that information to someone that I deem credible."

But identifying the danger within a still-volatile situation and responsibly communicating it to the public proved problematic, not just for the media but for officials, too. Who was shooting? Who was being shot at? Were there one or two snipers, or even more?

For instance, Rawlings noted that officers spent "a tremendous amount of time" tracking down and interrogating multiple rifle-wielding people who turned out to be protesters.

One of the most crucial ethical issues became evident when Dallas police posted a photo on Twitter of a person wrongly identified as a suspect. "Please help us find him," it said.

The photo was quickly disseminated on social media and reported nationwide. Wilson personally retweeted the post, as did many other journalists.

But that person turned out to be Mark Hughes, the brother of protest co-organizer Cory Hughes. By the time he turned over his rifle to police and was cleared, the damage was done.

As it turned out, Mark Hughes was in the audience — and he, too, wanted to know: How was he singled out as a suspect?

"Did we have qualms? Yes," Rawlings said of identifying Hughes as a possible suspect. "But the advice was given from the field that this was a serious lead."

Looking back, he said, he would choose not to disseminate the photo.

Among the other ethical questions that arose in the July 7 coverage:

Should the media show video images of police positions and their movements? Was the word "ambush," which came to be used in connection with the tragedy, the correct term given its implications? And how do news organizations weigh the safety of their journalists against the need to gather information in a risky environment?

Another danger noted by the panelists was the tendency to jump to conclusions with minimal information available. Pickett admitted that he at first figured the shooter was white, given that the evening's protest was against the fatal police shootings of African-Americans nationwide.

Wilson took the opportunity to caution the crowd's aspiring journalists against a challenge that all journalists face.

"The temptation to impose your narrative on a news story that's happening, before you know what's going on, is one of the most dangerous things you'll bring to this work," he said. "Your assumptions about what this must be are maybe your greatest enemy."

The Sammons Lecture Series is presented by the Division of Journalism at SMU's Meadows School of the Arts. Previous presenters of the media ethics lecture have included columnist Charles Krauthammer and editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez, both two-time Pulitzer Prize winners.