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).
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.”