Steve Gonzales/Houston Chronicle via AP, File
Eyewitness testimony is often flawed, but it’s powerful. That power is why the media relies so heavily on it. A reporter can lay out everything that happened by speaking with several people and constructing a detailed timeline, explaining what happened when and how, but at the end of the day, viewers and readers would rather hear about it directly from someone who was there.
The thing is, it’s important that the person telling the story was actually there.
Most of the time, that’s not an issue. There are often plenty of witnesses who are willing to talk to the media. However, it’s also clear that the media doesn’t do much vetting.
In the immediate aftermath of the May 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School, a man who said he witnessed the carnage seemed to turn up everywhere.
The man calling himself David Briscoe appeared in Time as a substitute teacher seemingly in the wrong place at the wrong time; CNN described his heroism as he ordered his students to “get down” and kept them protected until police came; The Wall Street Journal relayed the blood-curdling screams he heard from students in the hallway.
In April, nearly a year after the shooting, he told a strikingly similar story to The Texas Tribune. But after investigating some of his claims, the Tribune did not publish his account of the shooting — because it appears his entire story was an elaborate hoax.
In a roughly 31-minute interview with the Tribune, David Briscoe told his tale: When the first shots rang out — “it was very, very loud” — he said he directed his classroom of nearly a dozen students in the remedial English course he was teaching to muffle their screams with their hands.
Briscoe’s story was elaborate and detailed, but it appears the Tribune made the right call in the long run. Not only did Briscoe’s story seem to be a fabrication, but it seems no one by that name ever worked at Santa Fe High School.
Lindsey Campbell, a spokeswoman for Santa Fe Independent School District, said it had no record of anyone named David Briscoe being employed by the district in any capacity and that the district is confident no one by that name was on campus the day of the shooting last year.
“We are extremely disappointed that an individual that has never been a part of our school community would represent themselves as a survivor of the mass violence tragedy that our community endured,” said Santa Fe ISD Superintendent Leigh Wall. “This situation illustrates how easily misinformation can be created and circulated, especially when the amount of detailed information available is limited due to the still ongoing investigation.”
The police note that the shooting was contained in the art rooms. There wasn’t an English class that close to the shooting in the first place.
This is a basic fact that Time should have been able to verify. It also should have at least tried to verify the man had been at the school that day with the school system.
In the aftermath of something like this, there will always be some who try to attach themselves to it despite not being there. They want attention and to have a story to tell, even if it’s not real. They want to feel special and important, so they latch on to the tragedy and pretend they survived it. Over the years, you’ll encounter a lot of people who will claim to have been a survivor of Las Vegas or Parkland as well.
It’s a similar mechanism to Stolen Valor. People want to be identified as special, yet they don’t feel they’ve done anything to warrant it. So, rather than work their a** off to achieve something of their own, they attach themselves to whatever they can. Since they’re not going to convince many people they were part of championship sports teams or something like that, they use tragedies.
Media outlets, desperate for a juicy survivor story to advance an anti-gun narrative, won’t bother to fact check. Whether it’s conscious or not is debatable, but they get a story that they can use, that’s thrilling and exciting, so they run it.
In the process, they fail to do even the most fundamental level of fact-checking.
Briscoe, however, claims it wasn’t him.
After the initial April 25 phone interview with the Tribune, the man calling himself David Briscoe went quiet until mid-May, when he responded to a direct message on Twitter.
He claimed he had never talked to the Tribune.
When he was shown the email account and phone number of the person who first contacted the Tribune, as well as screenshots of the initial direct messages, he claimed one of his employees impersonated him and had likely been the person who gave interviews with other media outlets. He added that someone — likely that same employee — stole his identity nearly a year before. He wouldn’t disclose the name of the employee in question “due to company policy” but said the person had been arrested.
Sorry, but I’m not buying it. As Karen Townsend wrote over at Hot Air, it’s the old “I was hacked” routine. There’s rarely any reason to take those at face value.
As bad as Briscoe’s actions were–and they were awful–the real takeaway here may well be that the media is once again failing to do even the most basic things when they have a story that helps their agenda. Stories about the screams of children are upsetting, so of course, they ran with it without even checking.
Maybe it’s time for them to get off the gun control bandwagon and back onto some basic journalism. You know, to try something new.