On Wednesday night, The Daily Beast reported that a man named Syed Farook had been identified by police as a suspect in the mass shooting at a party among health department employees at Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California. The article’s authors, Oliver Jones and Katie Zavadski, included a photo of Farook taken from Facebook, described him as a “business tax representative” for the California government, and linked to property records showing he had purchased a home in Corona. In fact, as the article’s 1:41 a.m. correction indicates, the photo, description, and property records were not those of the actual suspect, whose full name is Syed Rizwan Farook. They were of his brother, Syed Raheel Farook.
By any standard of journalism, this is a significant fuck-up (and another bruise for an outlet that reported, erroneously, that Mitt Romney would launch a 2016 presidential campaign). What makes the error so noteworthy, however, is that The Daily Beast published it based upon hours of on-the-ground reporting, in-person interviews, and in-depth research.
In the aftermath of the shooting, police scanners in San Bernardino County began picking up radio conversations among officers discussing a person named “Syed Farook” as one of the potential suspects. As soon as the chatter took off, the Daily Beast dispatched local stringers to find anyone with that name in the area, which involved knocking on the doors of residences where any Syed Farooks had lived, interviewing alleged relatives, and keeping track of any law enforcement updates.
At 9:26 p.m. ET—a little over seven hours after the shooting began—The Daily Beast published the story’s first draft, containing the photo, employer, and property records of Syed Raheel Farook.
Shortly thereafter, Syed Rizwan Farook’s brother-in-law, Farhan Khan, issued a statement indicating that the photo depicted the wrong brother:
Syed Farook's brother-in-law says the FB profile that's been circulating on Twitter is actually Raheel Farook, Syed's beother.— Ali Gharib (@Ali_Gharib) December 3, 2015
How did this happen? Based on the updated story, The Daily Beast appears to have run a name search through public records maintained by Lexis-Nexis, a vast database containing most Americans’ residential address history. This is standard operating procedure at news outlets who are trying to find someone’s contact info. The problem is that results from name searches tend to be somewhat fuzzy; it’s often hard to tell if multiple results for a particular name and associated location reflect duplicate records, or discrete persons sharing the same name. Not all entries reflect middle initials, either. If you search for people named “Syed Farook” who live in California, for example, you’ll get four entries in return (with the address information omitted):
1. FAROOK, SAIRA
2. FAROOK, SYED
FAROOK, SYED R
FAROOK, SYED RAHEEL
3. FAROOK, SYED
FAROOK, SYED R
FAROOK, SYED S
4. FAROOK, SYED
The inherent ambiguity of these results—how many Syed Farooks who fit the police’s description live in or near San Bernardino?—presented the first problem. The second and more serious problem came from The Daily Beast’s decision to rely upon Syed Raheel Farook’s (now deleted) LinkedIn page, which listed his job as a “business tax representative” for the State of California. As Wonkette’s Rebecca Schoenkopf argued, that should have led The Daily Beast to consult the salary records of California’s government employees, which are a matter of public record.
Indeed, a search for “Syed Farook” on the website Transparent California would have suggested the existence of at least three government employees named Syed Farook: A Syed R. Farook who worked as a business tax representative, a Syed R. Farook who worked as an environmental health specialist for San Bernardino County, and a Syed Eba Farook who worked as a swimming instructor for Riverside City College. As Schoenkopf noted, “Occam’s Razor would suggest [the second Farook] had been the suspect in shooting up a health department party.”
The first draft of the article, which received numerous updates following its initial publication, contained no indication that these records were consulted. In the absence of that information, The Daily Beast came to believe there was only one Syed Farook, when in fact there were at least two. In other words, the outlet’s on-scene reporters were door-knocking in the blind. The Beast’s executive editor, Noah Shachtman, offered an explanation in a statement to Gawker:
During our search for the San Bernardino suspect, we made dozens of phone calls, dug through public records, knocked on doors, spoke to Farook’s relatives, visited two Farook family residences, talked to witnesses to the massacre and their kin, and passed around photos of the man we thought was the suspected shooter.
Over and over again, we delayed publishing Farook’s name in order gather more evidence about the alleged gunman. We only later learned that there were two Syed R. Farooks in the San Bernardino vicinity, both working for area government agencies and both with a connection to the home that police raided. Obviously, we are mortified that we identified the wrong Syed R. Farook. Once we realized there was a problem with our story, we moved as quickly as we could to correct the piece.
It’s difficult to accuse The Daily Beast of being willfully negligent here; many other outlets would have made the same inferences, with precisely the same (erroneous) result. Two brothers with nearly identical names, connected to the same household, who both work for government agencies, would be easy to mistake for each other, or for one person, especially in the chaotic environment bred by mass shootings.
The Daily Beast’s retraction echoes those issued by a number of media outlets (including Gawker) who mistakenly identified a Connecticut teenager named Ryan Lanza as the alleged suspect of the Newtown Elementary School shooting in December 2012. (The actual suspect was his brother, Adam Lanza.) The Daily Beast went much further than those outlets did in attempting to corroborate the San Bernardino suspect’s identity. As this episode clearly demonstrates, sometimes even that is not enough.