IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — When a local newspaper reported the identity of the gunman in Milwaukee’s mass shooting, it came many hours after that news was broken on Twitter by a self-employed and formerly imprisoned journalist working from his bedroom in California.
Matthew Keys was the first to report that 51-year-old Anthony Ferrill was the Molson Coors employee who shot and killed five co-workers Wednesday before killing himself. Keys also published photos of Ferrill from his wife’s Facebook page, giving the public its first look at the gunman.
Keys has been working to rebuild a once-promising career in journalism that has been marred by employment disputes and a criminal conviction. He completed a two-year prison sentence in 2018 for his role in a conspiracy to hack the Los Angeles Times website.
“How many people could come out of prison and break the story like I broke this week?” said Keys, 33, who remains under federal supervised release and still owes the bulk of a quarter-million-dollar restitution order. “I’ve somehow managed to bounce back.”
But his scoop was followed by inaccurate tweets that Keys had to correct, including the details of a lawsuit involving Ferrill’s health benefits and when Ferrill met presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren.
Keys said he used Google Maps to locate the address of the house that TV broadcasts showed police searching in the wake of the shooting, and he used public records and social media to identify Ferrill as a 51-year-old brewery employee who lived there.
Keys said he called a federal law enforcement source who told him he was “not wrong” about Ferrill’s identity, and then he tweeted the information to his 43,000 followers. He later noted his report had beaten the Journal Sentinel newspaper by 16 hours.
In a lengthy phone interview Friday, Keys downplayed as insignificant the reporting errors that followed, noting he quickly corrected them.
Critics say social media journalists such as Keys can be too quick to report information that turns out to be erroneous, irrelevant or lacking key context in breaking news situations, and their reports suffer because they lack oversight.
“This guy is operating as a lone wolf so he doesn’t have a safety net of a boss or a newsroom that’s holding him back from doing that kind of thing,” said Kelly McBride, senior vice president at the Poynter Institute. “He’s part of the chaos problem.”
Once a social media wunderkind, Keys has also seen the risk that comes with trying to break news in chaotic situations.
Keys was fired as a deputy social media editor for Reuters in 2013 over his Twitter-based coverage of the manhunt that followed the Boston Marathon bombing. That included reporting police scanner traffic about a suspect being in custody that turned out to be wrong.
Keys maintains that he did nothing wrong in reporting scanner traffic but said an arbitrator upheld his firing after his union challenged it.
Shortly before that, Keys had been indicted in California on federal charges accusing him of conspiring with the hacking group Anonymous. Federal prosecutors alleged that he provided the login information used by a hacker in December 2010 to get inside the Los Angeles Times website’s content management system and change the headline of a story.
Federal authorities said Keys had recently left Fox News affiliate KTXL-TV in Sacramento, California, which was acquired by Nexstar Media Group last year, after a dispute with his supervisor. They said his content management system account was terminated and Keys never returned to work. Prosecutors alleged Keys encouraged the hack as an act of revenge. A jury found him guilty in 2015 of violating the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner called Keys “a disgruntled employee who used his technical skills to taunt and torment his former employer.”
Keys was sent to the minimum-security prison camp in Atwater, California.
After his release, he took a job at Winters Express, a small California newspaper where his reporting won recognition from a state news association. He said he left that job last year for a better paid role with the business publication, Comstock’s Magazine.
But he said he left Comstock’s last month and is again looking for work in journalism or another field.
“You wouldn’t assume somebody working in their bedroom would be able to scoop every national outlet on a story of that magnitude,” he said. “It’s a really wild time we’re living in.”