The news media are notorious for seldom looking back in any sustained way to understand and explain their missteps when coverage of a prominent story has been botched.
It also has been apparent in the two weeks since the schoolhouse massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.
There can be little dispute that the news media stumbled badly in reporting Adam Lanza’s lethal attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, an assault in which 26 people were killed, including 20 first-grade pupils.
“Adam Lanza was not buzzed in to Sandy Hook Elementary School …. His mother, Nancy, did not work at the school. He didn’t have an altercation with school officials the day before. He used a Bushmaster rifle, not the Glock and SIG Sauer pistols he was carrying, to carry out his massacre. The children he killed were first-graders, not mostly kindergarteners.
“Adam Lanza’s name was not Ryan.”
Ryan Lanza is the shooter’s brother.
Mistaking the assailant’s name may well endure as the single most memorable of the media’s errors in reporting the Newtown shootings. Just as Brian Ross’ egregious lapse last summer in tying the Colorado-movie theater shooter to the Tea Party movement stands as the most-remembered error in the coverage of that massacre.
Two weeks after the shootings in Connecticut, just how and why the news media failed so often has not been adequately dissected or explained. Not in any sustained or granular way.
When journalists and media critics have paused to consider the flawed reporting, they’ve tended to cite competitive pressures or have shifted blame to anonymous sources, especially those vaguely identified as “law enforcement” officials who provided bum information.
Blaming sources isn’t exculpatory, however. It doesn’t let journalists off the hook, despite an inclination to do so.
In a blog post the day after the shootings, Erik Wemple of the Washington Post wrote:
“The media can do many things; one thing they cannot do is on-the-spot fact-checking of the cops.”
But of course they can. Reporters have an obligation to press the cops for details about how they developed the information they’re passing along.
Journalists aren’t stenographers for the authorities; they need not be timid or credulous.
Reporters covering unfolding disasters would be well-served to remember Eddie Compass, formerly the police commissioner in New Orleans, who offered graphic accounts of lawlessness in his city following Katrina’s landfall.
Little of Compass’ extravagance proved true.
As I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “Compass was asked months afterward why he had depicted New Orleans as swept by mayhem in Katrina’s aftermath. He offered a baffling reply. ‘I didn’t want people to think we were trying to cover anything up,’ he said. ‘So I repeated things without being substantiated, and it caused a lot of problems.’”
It sure did.
In the misreporting at Newtown, it’s not entirely clear that cops were the sources for the media’s most stunning error.
According to a transcript of CNN’s coverage available at the LexisNexis database, Candiotti said:
“The shooter has been identified to me by a source as Ryan Lanza, Ryan Lanza, in his 20s, apparently, we are told from the source, from this area.”
The identification, she said, was “by a source,” a most lazy and opaque sort of attribution. A “source” could be almost anyone, and not necessarily a “law enforcement” official.
In any case, the error about the shooter’s name soon was compounded.
The misidentification was reported by other news organizations in a revealing example of what Av Westin, formerly of ABC News, has called the “out there” syndrome. That is, if other news organizations are “out there” reporting what seems to be an important element of a disaster-related story, pressures mount on rival news outlets to match that information.
“Various news outlets identified the shooter as Ryan Lanza.”
But Sullivan did not consider the implications of the Times’ having joined in the “out there” syndrome. She offered neither criticism nor rebuke.
She wrote that “some mistakes may be inevitable on a major, fast-moving story, working against brutally demanding deadlines. That’s not an excuse, just a reality.”
Sullivan in a subsequent column seemed to modify that interpretation, writing that the Times “has to stand apart from those news sources that are getting information out in a fast, piecemeal and frequently inaccurate way.”
Given that early disaster coverage does tend to be accompanied by missteps and error, journalists are well-advised to proceed cautiously. The challenges of filing on “brutally demanding deadlines” should give reporters, and their editors, pause: It should leave them more wary about what they are told and more cautious about what they report.
Greater restraint at such times — coupled with a broader inclination to study and learn from the missteps of disaster coverage — would leave journalists less likely to traffic in claims that prove exaggerated or unfounded.
Recent or related:
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- NBC’s Katrina retrospective sidesteps media failings
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- Give the press ‘D-minus’ on post-Katrina coverage
- Jon Krakauer rolls back claims about WaPo ‘source’ in Lynch case
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- Thoughts on why journalists can get it badly wrong
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