Earlier this week, it emerged that Capitol Police officer Brian D. Sicknick suffered two strokes and died of natural causes a day after the January 6 riot at the Capitol, according to a ruling by the District’s chief medical examiner.

The ruling means federal prosecutors will likely be unable to bring homicide charges in connection with his death. Two men have already been charged with assaulting Sicknick by spraying him with a chemical irritant.

Sicknick’s death was reported on extensively following the Jan. 6 event, in which Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in protest of purported election fraud. Running off of a report from The New York Times (Lean Left), many media outlets, such as MSNBC and CNN, continually reported that rioters bludgeoned Officer Sicknick to death with a fire extinguisher. The report turned out to be untrue, and the whole story from start to finish has shown clear media bias from the left and right, with the right more likely to call out the left media for repeating the claim.

AllSides took a look at the media coverage of the medical examiner’s ruling this week to see how outlets differed, as well as which outlets mentioned claims that the initial media reports constituted an intentional disinformation campaign.

Background: Sicknick’s Death, Early Media Coverage, and Corrections Issued

After being part of the responding force to the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, Officer Sicknick reportedly went back to his office. Some hours later, he collapsed and then later died.

In this week’s ruling, the medical examiner said he found no evidence of an allergic reaction to chemicals, which would have caused Sicknick’s throat to quickly seize. In addition, the examiner did not find any evidence of internal or external injuries.

Like all the events of that day, Sicknick’s death gained widespread media attention in January. It all began when the New York Times initially said that Sicknick was “struck by a fire extinguisher,” citing two unnamed law enforcement officials.

The now-updated Times article was headlined, “He Dreamed of Being a Police Officer, Then Was Killed By a Pro-Trump Mob.

The Times described the purported event: “Then on Wednesday, pro-Trump rioters attacked that citadel of democracy, overpowered Mr. Sicknick, 42, and struck him in the head with a fire extinguisher, according to two law enforcement officials. With a bloody gash in his head, Mr. Sicknick was rushed to the hospital and placed on life support. He died on Thursday evening.

Image source: Glenn Greenwald, Substack

Yet The New York Times updated their initial report a month later, adding a disclaimer: "New information has emerged regarding the death of the Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick that questions the initial cause of his death provided by officials close to the Capitol Police." The headline has also been changed to “Capitol Police Officer Dies From Injuries in Pro-Trump Rampage.

There's no golden rule for corrections/retractions that all news outlets abide by, but the expectation is generally that corrections will be made transparently and visibly; the outlet explains the errors that led to the incorrect information, the process of getting the right information and making the change, the date the correction was made, and includes something akin to an apology to cap it off.

The fire extinguisher story quickly spread in the press. The Associated Press (Lean Left), The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristoff (Left), and others ran with the story on Twitter, some noting Sicknick was “clubbed to death.”

Image source: Glenn Greenwald, Substack

The New York Post (Lean Right) reported the false story on Jan. 7, running the headline: “Capitol Police officer dies after being hit in head with fire extinguisher during DC riots.” The Post said this had “reportedly” occurred, but did not cite a source; a Jan. 10 Post article said Sicknick was “fatally bludgeoned” and that he was “murdered.”

In addition, the tale was oft-repeated on CNN and MSNBC cable news (AllSides does not rate cable news, but CNN and MSNBC online news are both rated Left).

A video compilation that aired on Tucker Carlson Tonight (Right bias) shows anchors on MSNBC and CNN repeating that Sicknick was “bludgeoned with a fire extinguisher.” They state that Sicknick “died after being hit in the head with a fire extinguisher” and that Trump supporters “beat a Capitol police officer to death with a fire extinguisher.” AllSides didn’t find any videos showing Fox News channel reporting this falsehood (is there one we missed? Email us.)

Fox News’ (Lean Right) report on the incident didn’t mention a fire extinguisher; it said Sicknick “was injured during a physical altercation with rioters … and collapsed after returning to his division office;” another report cited a Fox News reporter who said Sicknick was “hit by a piece of metal.”

The official statement on Officer Sicknick’s death by Capitol Police on Jan. 7 was: "Officer Sicknick was responding to the riots on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol and was injured while physically engaging with protesters. He returned to his division office and collapsed. He was taken to a local hospital where he succumbed to his injuries.”

Some right-wing media outlets, such as Red State (Right bias) and The National Pulse (Right bias), issued reports early on claiming the mainstream media narrative may be untrue, with the latter arguing CNN was not aggressive enough in correcting the story when new information emerged. The Daily Wire’s (Right bias) early coverage mentioned an ABC News (Lean Left) report that stated “the fire extinguisher attack has not been confirmed by law enforcement.”

The Capitol police officers’ union said 140 officers were injured during the riot, and other deaths were either linked to or directly caused by the event. Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran, was shot and killed by a Capitol Police officer during commotion in the Speaker's Lobby. Two others died of complications from heart disease and one death was accidental; two other officers, one from Capitol Police and another from MPD, died by suicide in the days after the event, local police said.

Did Coverage of the Medical Examiner’s Ruling Include Claims of Disinformation?

AllSides took a look at the media coverage this week. We were curious which outlets mentioned the false fire extinguisher narrative and which pointed to New York Times as a source of that information.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald (Center) has been covering the story since February, and has argued the media was “echoing false claims in order to render the event more menacing and serious than it actually was.” This week, he continued to accuse the media of irresponsible reporting:

“As I detailed over and over when examining this story, there were so many reasons to doubt this storyline from the start. Nobody on the record claimed it happened. The autopsy found no blunt trauma to the head. Sicknick's own family kept urging the press to stop spreading this story because he called them the night of January 6 and told them he was fine — obviously inconsistent with the media's claim that he died by having his skull bashed in — and his own mother kept saying that she believed he died of a stroke.”

In its writeup on this week’s ruling, The New York Times piece (which was written by a different writer than the original piece) doesn’t mention its initial report nor its correction. It does speculate about the reaction of the other side: “The determination by [medical examiner] Dr. Diaz is likely to be used by supporters of former President Donald J. Trump and others who have tried to downplay the storming of the Capitol.” This is an analysis statement presented as fact, a type of media bias.

An article by BBC (Center bias) mentions all aspects of the story — that the ruling means homicide charges are unlikely, and that the New York Times initially reported a falsehood. BBC also labels that falsehood specifically as disinformation, writing, “Speculation over Officer Sicknick’s death was the source of widespread disinformation after the New York Times reported erroneously that protesters had bludgeoned him with a fire extinguisher - a claim the newspaper later retracted.”

The Associated Press (Lean Left) mentions the fire extinguisher theory, attributes it to investigators, and doesn’t mention that it was oft-repeated by the media. (In its initial report on the story, AP also attributed the fire extinguisher theory to two anonymous officials; it is unknown whether these were the same two officials who spoke to the Times.) A Politico (Lean Left) story also mentions the false theory, and also does not mention any media outlets specifically, just noting “initial reports” were untrue. The Washington Post (Lean Left) mentions the New York Times story specifically.

Reports from The Wall Street Journal (Center) and Reuters (Center) do not mention the fire extinguisher theory.

On the other side, right-rated media outlets were likely to note the false story, to say it was used in impeachment trial proceedings, and/or to make it a central part of its coverage on the ruling. Fox News, for example, noted that the fire extinguisher story was “an idea perpetuated by The New York Times in a February report that was quietly updated one month later.

The Epoch Times (Lean Right) mentions the false media narrative, pointing to “The New York Times and other sources” as spreading it; they also mention “the allegation that Sicknick was murdered by protesters was invoked numerous times during the Democrat-led impeachment against former President Donald Trump.The Daily Caller (Right) also mentions the impeachment trial allegations, as well as the Times story.

TheBlaze (Right bias) mentions incorrect “initial reports,” but doesn’t link them to The Times or the impeachment proceedings. In its coverage of the medical examiner’s ruling, The New York Post, which initially carried the fire extinguisher story, blamed the early false narrative on Capitol Police, not the Times.

Finally, Breitbart (Right bias) ran an opinion piece titled: “Nolte: Corporate Media’s Brian Sicknick Hoax Debunked by D.C. Medical Examiner.” This opinion piece makes the debunked theory the lede: “Without evidence, America’s corporate media spent weeks hoaxing the American public with the lie Capitol Hill Police Officer Brian Sicknick died after an anti-vote-fraud protester smashed him in the head with a fire extinguisher during the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Disinformation, or Honest Mistake?

So, was the fire extinguisher theory intentional disinformation to make the riots look more deadly than they were, or an honest mistake made in the midst of a chaotic event — which would make it misinformation, rather than disinformation? Was the media’s spreading of the false story worth highlighting more in coverage of the examiner’s ruling, or not? And finally, was the false report something that should be forgiven as journalists engage in a tough job with many moving parts, or was it a failure of reporter ethics, fact-checking, and properly alerting audiences to the error?

There isn’t concrete evidence the spreading of this false story was intentional rather than an honest mistake. Yet definitive answers to all these questions will be virtually impossible to come by. At the very least, the reporting around the Sicknick story highlights just how quickly false reports can spread. It also shows how it can be hard to determine if something is disinformation (false reports spread intentionally) or misinformation (incorrect information spread by mistake). It also shows how people are more or less willing to label something as disinformation depending on whom the story hurts or serves and what their own bias is.

Check out our Red Blue Dictionary definition of disinformation to get a better understanding of how this word is used on the left and right — and always be sure to read news across the spectrum in order to spot falsehoods.

Julie Mastrine is the Director of Marketing at AllSides. She has a Lean Right bias.

This piece was reviewed by Henry Brechter, Managing Editor (Center bias) and Joseph Ratliff, Daily News Specialist (Lean Left bias).