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He said he protected students in a school shooting. Then the truth emerged.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/2/2019 Alex Horton
a couple of people that are looking at the camera: Mourners wait for the start of a prayer vigil following a deadly shooting at Santa Fe High School on May 18, 2018. (David J. Phillip/AP) Mourners wait for the start of a prayer vigil following a deadly shooting at Santa Fe High School on May 18, 2018. (David J. Phillip/AP)

When the acrid smell of gunpowder swirled through Santa Fe High School in Texas last May, several people rushed into action.

One 15-year old student, Christian Riley Garcia, was killed after he used his body as a barricade for students hiding in a closet. Another student, Chris Stone, blocked a door and was shot in the chest. Garcia and Stone were among 10 killed. At least 10 other people were wounded, and many more survived the chaos.

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David Briscoe was not one of them, despite what you may have read.

“I barricaded the door with desks and tables and shut the lights,” Briscoe originally said on CNN, telling a reporter the grim story of hearing what he thought was a student groaning after being shot.

Briscoe tweeted about the ordeal, saying he was a substitute teacher at the scene. He told at least four media outlets — CNN, Time, the Wall Street Journal and the Austin American-Statesman — about his own brave actions to save his students.

But Briscoe’s story unraveled after he contacted Texas Tribune reporter Alex Samuels to retell his story for anniversary coverage, leading to a startling conclusion in a Monday bombshell: Briscoe was not a witness, never worked for the school, and then denied he ever made those claims.

All four outlets have removed Briscoe’s comments in the past few days ahead of the Tribune’s story and published editor’s notes at CNN, Time, the Journal and the Statesman.

It is a problem as old as stories themselves: How can you be sure what is true and what is embellished? How can someone undoubtedly verify what you saw when the Berlin Wall crashed down, or how Wall Street was covered in ash on Sept. 11, 2001?

Yet that problem has accelerated in the Internet age, when social media’s view from everywhere and nowhere collides with a hunger for up-to-the-second updates on major news events.

That sends reporters scrambling for new and vivid details — and in this case, falling through a trap door.

“Social media and the Internet have made it a lot easier to create personas that would make it easier to trick a reporter,” said Kelly McBride, senior vice president at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school.

“Now every reporter has to assume somebody is trying to trick her at any given point,” McBride told The Washington Post.

Briscoe did not respond to a request for comment. The Santa Fe Independent School District said no one named David Briscoe ever worked for it, spokeswoman Lindsey Campbell said in a statement.

Superintendent Leigh Wall said the district was “extremely disappointed” that someone had misrepresented himself as a survivor.

“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 into the events of May 18, 2018,” Wall said. “We appreciate the efforts of those working to correct this misinformation.”

Briscoe was entangled in his own story after reaching out to the Tribune, saying he had difficulty living with the killings last year. He spoke with Samuels in a 31-minute interview in April. But in the process of fact-checking by Samuels, his account disintegrated.

One tell: He said he was an English teacher. But police told the Tribune that the shootings were contained to art class rooms, and there were no English classes nearby.

Such misinformation has never been easier to spread.

Decades before, news organizations had to reach witnesses through authorities, at the scene of an incident or at home shortly afterward. There was a proximity you could almost touch, McBride said, that carried a feeling of “officialdom.” A school shooting would yield a yearbook or a list of school employees, for instance.

Now reporters comb through tweets to find videos, photos and instant dispatches, and in a race to beat competitors, may publish work that was not vetted thoroughly.

“Social media is very unofficial. There is no control of who can create a profile or what they can say. But that is often where we start,” McBride said.

Twitter and Facebook can also contribute to confirmation bias, McBride said, especially if posts garner a lot of attention or are already included in coverage. Even if a reporter reaches a person for comment, “you’re confirming what you learned on social media,” she said.

And yet, those platforms can be a powerful tool when just years ago, photos from the scene would arrive online or in a newspaper hours or a day later. In the case of the Parkland, Fla., killings last year, students shared video on social media of a gunman firing a rifle into a classroom before many even heard there was a shooting.

And in Christchurch, New Zealand, a gunman live-streamed his own slayings in March — meaning the delay between the event and news of the event itself was measured in milliseconds.

Social media allows any nearly reporter on Earth find a key part of a story. And reporters most often work diligently to confirm details in a chaotic environment.

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But it is also the process that Briscoe appeared to hijack, according to the Tribune. At least one organization — the Statesman — reached out for an interview after seeing his since-deleted social media posts about being a substitute teacher at the scene of the shooting.

“The school obviously was in no position to verify employment in those moments immediately after the shooting,” John Bridges, the executive editor of the Statesman, told the Tribune, calling Briscoe’s actions “sick” and “sad.” Bridges did not respond to a request for comment.

“Reporters in breaking news situations attempt to verify sources and information as much as they can — and we made reasonable attempts as we were reporting in the minutes after the shooting,” Bridges told the Tribune.

The Journal said it is reviewing how the “error” with Briscoe was made. “We have removed him from the piece, and we apologize to our readers for the misinformation. We are reviewing how this error was made and will take steps to safeguard against this in the future,” said Steve Severinghaus, a spokesman for the Journal.

Time and CNN did not reply to requests for comment.

After being presented with the fact-checking process, Briscoe stopped replying to the Tribune, did not return calls and deleted his tweets related to the shooting, the Tribune reported.

Then he claimed he never spoke to the reporter, and it was someone else — an employee of his perhaps — who impersonated him.

"I have never lived in Texas,” he told the Tribune. “I have only lived in Florida. I’ve been living here practically my whole life.”

Read more:

The lives lost at Santa Fe High School

The psychology of why people like Steve Rannazzisi lie about having survived 9/11

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