Sandy Hook coverage: Is ‘good enough’ good enough?

Adam Lanza was not buzzed in to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Friday. 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 kindergartners.

Adam Lanza’s name was not Ryan.

There was plenty of media-bashing following the tragedy, much of it reflexive and evergreen, from the suggestion that reporters shouldn’t name the killer to criticism of reporters for interviewing children (Poynter’s Al Tompkins told The New York Times he was “touched and impressed” by the coverage he’d seen, and he hadn’t seen any inappropriate interviews).

Dilma Steiner, of Newtown, Conn., visits a sidewalk memorial for the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. (David Goldman/AP)

Oddly, there was less of an outcry about the fuzzy facts, many of which were investigators’ words, reported accurately. Is that because the news-consuming public now expects a few “i”s to be crossed and a few “t”s to be dotted at first?

On Friday, “the word ‘unimaginable’ was used countless times,” the Associated Press’ Frazier Moore wrote in a post-mortem of the woolly hours after the tragedy.

But “imagine” was exactly what the horrified audience was helpless not to do.

The screen was mostly occupied by grim or tearful faces, sparing everybody besides law enforcement officials the most chilling sight: the death scene in the school, where — as viewers were reminded over and over — the bodies remained while evidence was gathered. But who could keep from imagining it?

You could say this is the news media we have now. BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith writes that his publication’s biggest mistake wasn’t publishing Ryan Lanza’s picture and Facebook profile — “In the end, social media got to the answer of who Ryan Lanza is much more quickly than a dozen local reporters would have done,” he writes — it was not sending “a reporter to Newtown instantly, which might have allowed us to close the loop between our online reporting and the original police sources.”

Does that mean BuzzFeed would have sat on the story for the 90 minutes it’d take someone to get from New York to Newtown under ideal traffic conditions? Smith says being “utterly transparent about how the story is changing” is BuzzFeed’s answer to the Way We Report Now.

Matt Bors is a little harsher on reporters but says anyone blaming social media, “might as well credit phones and typewriters for everything reported correctly before 1999.” But by all means, blame the news media for getting things wrong. Just don’t confuse that facile — and, frankly, low-stakes — critique with saying anything new.

News in process is messy. Here’s a fascinating presentation about the UPI wire on the day President Kennedy was shot, as well as a raw feed from reporters following a story in 2010. And readers have repeatedly told organizations they want in on the process. Because of that new demand, we know a lot about what was reported incorrectly on Friday and very little about, for instance, what was reported incorrectly about the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.

I’m very OK with dinging news organizations for speculating about Lanza’s mental health or reporting he may have had Asperger syndrome or “may have been teased” or running an entertainment guide for grief or or any of the time-filling nonsense that always seems to accompany such a story. (News organizations do not often enough take the opportunity to report about mental health issues at all, something that needs to change.)

But read this deeply reported chronology of the shooting by Edmund H. Mahony and Dave Altimari in The Hartford Courant, and tell me something called “the media” let you down. Or from a strictly craft perspective, how about the first few sentences in this piece by Rick Maese?

Great journalism still takes time, usually, and breaking stories don’t require great journalism. They just require honesty about how damn hard it is to find out what happened and relay what you’ve learned.

More thoughts on the media and Newtown: It’s not a media story, Erik Wemple argues. Roger Ebert says the media’s drive to “explain” killings inspires more killers than violent movies do. David Holmes wonders whether Facebook has a responsibility to users who may be mistaken for villains. danah boyd says reporters should “leave the poor people of Newtown alone.” New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, in a rundown of the Times’ mistakes, understands. “I know too well 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.”

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  • Edmund Singleton

    There is nothing wrong with saying. ‘we don’t know for sure, but here is what some are saying’…

  • http://www.facebook.com/sullivanjef Jeff Sullivan

    How do any of us know what the “facts” are? Were any of us at the school, present when the mask was lifted off Lanza’s face? Everything reported on the news is hearsay and therefore subject to scrutiny. Fact: other than lives being lost, we don’t know if anything about this story is true; we were not there to witness it firsthand.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    I am not sure how you draw that conclusion. Most people, 3 days later, wonder exactly the opposite. They also wonder why it was necessary to conduct and then replay countless times the interviews with young children. There was no balance. The coverage was tilted heavily toward inaccuracy, hype, and hand-wringing, which are the main and only strengths of today’s uncertified media.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    I agree with a lot of the rest of what you say, especially the part about people who make the public statements about gun ownership. I think many of these people are just being defiant for the sake of it, especially in the wake of situations like the one on Friday.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    I don’t think anyone is saying not to “report fully.” I think people want these outlets to gets some facts verified, though, before they go running breathlessly with whatever conclusion they have jumped to.

  • JTFloore

    many of these stories say something being reported is “apparent.” given the uncertainty of information in a chaotic, breaking story like this, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say “it appears such and such”? to me, those are very different statements.

    also, many of the mistakes would be avoided if instead of reporting anything anybody says, reporters would ask the people they are interviewing “why do you think that? how do you know that?” all too often reporters, even good ones, are too quick to accept statements from people who sound like they know what they are talkng about when, in fact, they don’t.

  • JTFloore

    many of these stories say something being reported is “apparent.” given the uncertainty of information in a chaotic, breaking story like this, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say “it appears such and such”? to me, those are very different statements.

    also, many of the mistakes would be avoided if instead of reporting anything anybody says, reporters would ask the people they are interviewing “why do you think that? how do you know that?” all too often reporters, even good ones, are too quick to accept statements from people who sound like they know what they are talkng about when, in fact, they don’t.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gwolin Glenda Wolin

    If the media had held back on reporting until we were absolutely sure of all the facts, we would have been excoriated for not telling people what was happening. Most reports were clear in stating things not as facts, but what various people said. That’s the best balance in such a confused, quickly changing scenario.

  • http://rtberner.blogspot.com/ R Thomas Berner

    The fog of breaking news.

  • Stewart

    This is a very thorough recap of the various media missteps but I can’t believe you essentially excuse all of it at the end. The fact is, nearly every key piece of this story has been initially reported incorrectly, starting with the very, very unfortunate misstep of naming an innocent man as a mass murderer, to the fact his mother was not a teacher there, not shot there, these were not kindergartners, etc., etc. And we excuse this as just an expected hazard of covering breaking news??

    One thing that’s important to note: As far as I know, none of these reported “facts” came from on the record official sources. The police did not officially name the suspect until well after most outlets had done so. In the rush to advance the story, reporters relied on anonymous law enforcement sources, which, in this case, were likely small-town police with almost no experience dealing with the media. Then when it turned out the details they were sharing were incorrect, outlets simply refreshed their stories with “contrary to previous reports …” I’m sorry, but it’s inexcusable. Simply put, how can we expect the public to ever trust the media — especially our “sources” — if they’re conditioned to expect false reports (proclaiming Gabby Gifford dead, botching a Supreme Court decision, naming the wrong brother as a mass murderer ) — whenever there’s a major breaking story.?

  • Clayton Burns

    The idea that the media should not report fully on such tragedies is like something that would be cooked up by an academic. Important information could come to light by virtue of the disclosure of the name of the shooter.

    Some flaws are in early childhood intervention, information management, and gun laws.

    Even if everything were perfect on those fronts, not all shootings could be prevented, obviously.

    But it should be impossible for a private citizen to hoard guns if he or she has a disturbed son or relative with easy access to the weapons.

    There should be mandatory reporting requirements for statements from people that they would like to commit mayhem. There should be significant sanctions for failure to report.

    As for those who just love their guns, and like to make provocative public statements about that, I question whether they should be admitted to college. They are potentially dangerous people.