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Confusion reigns as news outlets stumble on suspect's name and interview children in Connecticut shootings



sandy-hook4.jpgAs news outlets scrambled to cover a mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school which claimed the lives of over two dozen people, many stumbled on one of the key facts in the case: The exact identity of the killer.

For a while today, news outlets such as the Associated Press, CNN and ABC News reported that the killer who shot his mother and several students in her kindergarten class at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. was Ryan Lanza, age 24. The shooter reportedly killed himself and 26 others -- including 20 children -- in the attack.

But by 3:30p.m. or so, the New York Post was reporting the shooter's name was actually Adam Lanza, Ryan's 20-year-old brother. By 4:17 p.m., the Associated Press corrected its earlier reporting, noting that Ryan was being questioned by police, was not a suspect in the shootings and had a Facebook page where he posted the messages "it wasn't me" and "I was at work."

The AP story said a law enforcement official mistakenly transposed the names of the brothers. (The Tampa Bay Times website featured the AP's mistaken reporting before it was updated.)

sandy-hook2.jpg"We've seen this information shift around," said John Miller, a former spokesman for the FBI and police departments in New York in Los Angeles, now working as a special correspondent at CBS News, speaking during the network's coverage. "That's how these (emergencies) go."

The other delicate issue reporters faced was trying to interview students who might have been evacuated during the shooting, seeking firsthand information without upsetting or exploiting the children.

Kelly McBride, head of journalism ethics programs at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said anger toward reporters trying to interview children at the heart of this story may be fed by some journalists who do interviews badly. (The Poynter Institute owns the Tampa Bay Times).

sandyhookpic-500x281.jpgThose of us who have covered tragic stories before, know that sometimes people want to talk about what happened, if only to vent their emotions and make sense of what they have experienced. But McBride offered some ground rules.

She suggested reporters should get parental approval and keep the parent close during the interview, asking open-ended questions the child can answer at his or her own pace. Questions such as "was everyone screaming?" put words in the youths' mouths and keep them from expressing themselves. McBride also suggested TV reporters could interview children in a calmer area, away from the bustle of the emergency scene.

"The public gets really mad at journalists when they see them interviewing children," McBride said. "But if they were seeing a quality interview, people wouldn't be so angry."

Columnist Anne Louise Bannon suggests parents don't avoid telling their children about the shooting, since they likely pick up on the notion that something has happened. She suggests keeping circumstances vague for younger children, assuring them that the incident happened some distance away and assuring them they are safe.   

[Last modified: Friday, December 14, 2012 5:44pm]


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