I’ve needed a few days to digest the coverage of the shootings in Connecticut for assorted reasons (among them is I grew up 20 minutes from Newtown and I needed some time). But looking back, I think there are some lessons we all need to learn and other things that need to be discussed.
The spread of misinformation
It would take a lot of space to list all the piece of misinformation that spread far too quickly during Friday’s coverage. There were reports the father of the shooter was dead in New Jersey (he’s alive and in Connecticut) to how his mother was a teacher at the school (she was not and was killed at home). I’m still trying to understand how some of this information was reported as fact.
One of the biggest mistakes was the release of the name of the killer as Ryan Lanza, who lives in New Jersey. We knew fairly quickly it wasn’t him because of the Jersey Journal’s connections (and we were led to believe early it was his brother too). Ryan Lanza was alive and wasn’t a part of the shooting, and he was posting it wasn’t him on Facebook.
The Associated Press reported Ryan Lanza as the killer, even after other news organizations reported it was his brother. An anonymous law enforcement agent told the AP he had mixed up the names of the brothers later, which leads to an argument to be made about anonymous sources (I have been asking how national news outlets with no ties to the area have reliable anonymous sources to quote).
Meanwhile, reporters were digging through the Internet looking for every tidbit they could on Ryan Lanza, sharing his Facebook page and videos. The problem was no one was sure it was him. A Slate post asked if Ryan Lanza’s Facebook page was him, and they later had to write why they rushed to say why they searched through social media for the brothers.
It feels like to me, though, there was a lot of half reporting happening as the story developed. People were playing detective and not journalist in some ways too. Yes, we need to report what we know, but we need to be sure what we know is true.
I often tell reporters and editors that they don’t stop being journalists because it’s social media. They need to report things thoroughly and ask lots of questions. They need to confirm things before they write about them as fact.
Everyone wants to rush to be first rather than being right in today’s 24-7 news cycle (even though several studies show no one ever remembers who broke the story nor do they care). It’s easy to point fingers in hindsight, but it’s a lesson that everyone needs to take a breath before hitting post and making sure everything is right and complete.
But there’s lots of blaming of Twitter and social media in general for the rush and the failure to get things right. I refuse to accept that as an excuse. Don’t blame the platform for poor reporting. We all have a duty to get it right and get it right the first time, especially on stories like this.
Everyone needs to take a breath and think before they hit post, no matter the story.
The media crush
I drove through Newtown on Saturday. I wasn’t there because of curiosity; I was there because I was driving through to get to dinner with my friends in Danbury. But in my efforts to get to the highway, I got to see the media crush first hand.
On one side of the road was the church where there was a vigil being held. There was a giant sign that said “no press.” On the other side of the road, though, was a large group of media with cameras and their satellite trucks. It was surreal enough to see “home” on national television, but it was even more surreal to see all those people first hand.
And then I read Debbie Galant’s post for the NJ News Commons where she advocates for more combined forces for large news stories like this one. It’s an interesting concept.
First off, isn’t this why wire services exist in the first place? So the local coverage by one news organization can be spread to those who cannot be there. Plus wouldn’t you rather hear or see what the local news is doing with the story than a giant national outlet? They’re more likely to know the people and players in the story.
But how does it work? That’s a debate I’m sure we’ll all have to have if we wanted to calm the crush on a small town like this.
Naming the killer
After mass shootings there seems to be a debate on if the media should be naming the killer. It happened after the Aurora movie theater shooting and it happened again after Friday’s events. Steve Buttry had a blog post about the issue.
I disagree with doing it for a lot of reasons, but I also need to state my bias here. I suffer from depression and think the country needs to be discussing mental health on a larger scale.
That being said, I disagree with Steve and others about omitting the who from the story. It’s just as much an important part of the story as anything else. People are going to want to know why, and we should be reporting and trying to tell them why, and you can’t do that without reporting about the killer. Reporting about the Virginia Tech massacre and the killer there led to uncovering the holes in the system that left him untreated for mental illness. These are the kinds of issues journalists need to be uncovering, especially as people are reeling from the number of incidents this year.
You also have to determine where the line is drawn. Do we not report the name of anyone who is charged with murder? What crimes is it OK to report a name and not OK to do it?