Waiting until all the facts are in is not something journalists are particularly good at. Ours is a deadline-driven business: We report each and every detail as quickly as we get them, often without considering whether the details are logical on their face.
Take, for example, the violent death of Robert Scott Day, a 50-year-old Santa Ana resident shot in Corona by Antonio Mendez, an off-duty LAPD officer. Whether Mendez acted justifiably in shooting Day has yet to be determined, and if ever there was a story in which the news media should go about its job cautiously and responsibly, it’s this one. But with few exceptions, news coverage of the incident has proved remarkably heavy on rumor and speculation, and woefully short on critical reasoning.
Here’s what we know about Day’s death, or, at least, here’s what Riverside County sheriff’s officials say they’ve pieced together from the available evidence:
Sometime before 3:45PM on August 25, Day and Mendez were involved in some kind of collision on the northbound I-15 near Indian Truck Trail. Day and an unidentified male passenger were in a gray Toyota Tundra; Mendez, 28, was driving a white H2 Hummer, with his 13-month-old son in the backseat. Officials say Day drove away from the scene, and Mendez chased him. Both vehicles got off the freeway at Weirick Road and entered the parking lot of Seven Oaks General Market & Deli a few yards from the exit. According to sheriff’s officials, both men got out of their vehicles and “a verbal confrontation ensued.”
“The off-duty LAPD officer attempted to detain the hit-and-run suspect and there was an officer-involved shooting,” an August 26 sheriff’s press release read. “A single round was fired, striking the Tundra driver in the upper body.”
Day was taken to a local hospital, and pronounced dead at 4:26PM.
TV reporters arrived at the scene, and, after quick interviews with witnesses and sheriff’s spokesman Jerry Franchville, the reporters began releasing their reports. Within short hours of the shooting, stories on it had aired on ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox news affiliates.
Faced with a complicated story involving multiple moving parts, the reporters and their editors chose to just pass along data as they received it, regardless of content. CBS’s Channel 2 News opened its story with a claim—by the news anchor and the reporter—that “the shooting victim tried to grab (Mendez’s) toddler out of his car.”
ABC’s Eyewitness News reported the story as “an apparent case of road rage,” as did Fox 11 News. ABC and CBS reported Day had sideswiped Mendez’s car on the freeway, while Fox’s story cited witnesses and sheriff’s officials as saying the subsequent freeway chase reached speeds “up to 100 mph.”
All the reports described both Day and Mendez getting out of their trucks and exchanging words. CBS and ABC reported that Day advanced toward Mendez before Mendez opened fire. ABC interviewed a witness who opined that were he in a similar situation—an angry aggressor, a toddler in the back seat—he’d have opened fire, too.
Some of these statements were highly damaging to Mendez, who’s on paid administrative leave pending a criminal and administrative investigation. Others were highly damaging to Day, who’s on a more permanent leave. All are unverified, unsupported by the facts or flatly untrue.
Franchville himself says in an interview with the Weekly that neither Day nor his passenger tried to snatch Mendez’s child. The notion that either of the men tried to abduct Mendez’s toddler was a fabrication, one no doubt helped along by Franchville’s speculative comment about Mendez’s state of mind: “Maybe there was some thought that his child was in danger,” he told reporters at the scene. “That’s a possibility.”
Franchville also told reporters that witnesses to the freeway chase described speeds “up to 100 mph.” That was probably the origin of “apparent case of road rage” line, and it’s a crucial piece of information. Who but an enraged, out-of-control motorist would endanger his infant son by chasing a hit-and-run driver at such speeds? But in his interview with the Weekly, Franchville says the 100-mph figure “was an estimate given by the person who called the CHP to report the (freeway) accident.” We can reasonably assume the witness didn’t gauge the speeds with a radar gun—it was, at best, a best guess. We simply don’t know how fast those trucks were going.
Nor do we really know whether it was Day’s Tundra that hit Mendez’s Hummer on the freeway, or the other way around. While video of the shooting scene clearly shows a foot-long gash on the passenger side of the Tundra, it also shows a foot-long gash on the Tundra’s tailgate.
Nor do we really know that Day and Mendez got out of their vehicles to exchange words, or that Day “advanced” on Mendez. According to Seven Oaks clerk Chris Bennett, who says he looked out the glass front door of the store at the scene about a minute after the shooting, Mendez was seated inside his Hummer.
Of course, that doesn’t prove anything—Bennett might be mistaken, or Mendez might have gotten back inside his truck to check on his baby. But it does call into question the belief—currently being disseminated in the media as fact—that Mendez shot Day only after Day moved aggressively toward him.
Make no mistake: The news coverage of the Day shooting will influence—for better or worse—the ongoing investigation into Mendez’s actions. It probably already has. It’s past time for the media to catch its breath and begin showing some caution in how it reports this unfolding story.