Understanding Newtown shooting coverage: Accepting errors in breaking news seems the biggest mistake
There's been a lot of talk about media in the wake of the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., as the world struggles to understand something that may be beyond rational thought.
Big picture-wise, I think America is experiencing the brutal intersection of many thorny issues: a runaway gun culture we have indulged for too long; a culture of violence which too-often glorifies those who end problems with a fist or gun; a chronically underfunded mental health system woefully unable to help average people struggling with mental illness; and a media culture which can make outsize villains of those who commit the most horrific acts.
It would be nice if the tragedy of 20 children killed in their own elementary school was a big enough shock to prompt some movement at least on the curbing of assault weapons ownership and boosting of mental health resources in America. But at a time when politicians can't even agree on a plan to avoid raising every voter's taxes by the start of 2013, I'm not holding my breath.
There is one notion, however that I think should come off the table. The acceptance of the idea that major mistakes in breaking news coverage is the inevitable result of our modern, 24/7 media system.
Days later, it is apparent that much of what news outlets reported in the rush to cover the Newtown shootings was wrong. The shooter was 20-year-old Adam Lanza, not his 24-year-old brother, Ryan Lanza. Lanza's mother Nancy was not among those killed inside the school.
Lanza didn't target a class his mother taught at the school, because she wasn't a teacher at the school as initially reported (several stories online still contain a note that a parent believes Nancy Lanza was a substitute teacher there, but the superintendent denied that to the New York Times.) Lanza's father wasn't killed in New Jersey by the shooter; he lives in Connecticut with a new wife. Nancy Lanza was the relative killed by Adam Lanza at the home they both shared. And so on.
No one expects every detail to be accurate in the haze of a breaking news story, especially one so filled with so much horror and sadness. Numbers of deaths, circumstances of the shootings; we all expects those details to change as reporters get more time to track reliable sources.
But basic facts such as the identity of the shooter -- which many news outlets said was "confirmed " to be Ryan Lanza, only to recant that confirmation a few hours later -- should be nailed down as completely as possible before reporting. Even the fact that law enforcement sources provided the mistaken information may not be enough, anymore.
To say that such mistaken reporting is the result of dragging the reporting process into full view through social media, as Mathew Ingram suggests here, is to miss the point.
News outlets have decided in the past to limit in-the-moment reporting when doing so brings the potential for greater public harm than good. The best example is our modern elections coverage, in which news outlets don't reveal the substance of exit polling results for a state until polls are closed there, despite having the information much earlier. Thanks to the tremendous debacle of the 2000 election, when news outlets called Florida for both presidential candidates at one point, journalists realized the importance of putting accuracy ahead of speed.
It would seem, after a year in which two major news outlets got the results of a Supreme Court ruling wrong on live television and the wrong man was blamed for one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history, journalists need to take more control of the process again.
Should we reconsider reporting information from law enforcement in such situations without naming the source? If they aren't confident enough to release the information officially, should we be reporting it? Shouldn't we approach covering such shootings with the same reticence reserved for election coverage, where every result is chewed over by an army of analysts before reporting?
These are questions every major news outlet should be asking inside their newsrooms after Friday's problems.
Simply accepting that there is no solution for reporting huge chunks of a major story incorrectly in the moment sounds like a forward-looking acceptance of social media's impact. But it's really embracing a path which could destroy the news industry.
Consumers expect news outlets to get the big details rights when accuracy is needed most. Failing to do so erodes confidence in mainstream news organizations, making them look reliable as a guy blogging from his bedroom on the day's events.
In the same way tech-savvy people complain about newspapers deciding decades ago to give away free content online, news consumers of the future will ask why journalists accepted a flood of misinformation as a necessary by-product of a connected world.
In the end, most of us in journalism know our credibility is our most valuable asset. Squander that on too many mis-reported big stories, and there won't be enough paywalls in the world to save us.