The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

December 15, 2012

As Conn. story unfolds, media struggle with facts

NEW YORK — The scope and senselessness of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting challenged journalists’ ability to do much more than lend, or impose, their presence on the scene.

Pressed with the awful urgency of the story, television, along with other media, fell prey to reporting “facts” that were often in conflict or wrong.

How many people were killed? Which Lanza brother was the shooter: Adam or Ryan? Was their mother, who was among the slain, a teacher at the school?

Like the rest of the news media, television outlets were faced with intense competitive pressures and an audience ravenous for details in an age when the best-available information was seldom as reliable as the networks’ high-tech delivery systems.

Here was the normal gestation of an unfolding story. But with wall-to-wall cable coverage and second-by-second Twitter postings, the process of updating and correcting it was visible to every onlooker. And as facts were gathered by authorities, then shared with reporters (often on background), a seemingly higher-than-usual number of points failed to pan out:

— The number of dead was initially reported as anywhere from the high teens to nearly 30. The final count was established Friday afternoon: 20 children and six adults, as well as Lanza’s mother and the shooter himself.

— For hours on Friday, the shooter was identified as Ryan Lanza, with his age alternatively reported as 24 or 20. The confusion seemed explainable when a person who had spoken with Ryan Lanza said that 20-year-old Adam Lanza, the shooter who had then killed himself, could have been carrying identification belonging to his 24-year-old sibling.

This case of mistaken identity was painfully reminiscent of the Atlanta Olympics bombing case in 1996, when authorities fingered an innocent man, and the news media ran with it, destroying his life. Such damage was averted in Ryan Lanza’s case largely by his public protestations on social media, repeatedly declaring “It wasn’t me.”

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