There was something reassuring about the wave of public sorrow over the Newtown massacre. After Tucson, after Aurora, after the mass shootings in a dozen other places that you or I couldn’t name–events that were shrugged off within days–I was no longer convinced of the public’s capacity to respond to such horror in the right way: with outrage, with regret, with something close to determination.
Apparently, murdering a score of children and the women who were trying to protect them hits primordial nerves. That it happened at all suggests an abysmal failure to carry out the very most basic responsibility of any society—to keep its people safe, especially the most cherished and most vulnerable of them.
So it’s no surprise that the Dec. 14 slaughter at Sandy Hook elementary summoned a crisis-level response from the institution that is society’s trip wire and its intelligence service, the news media. Hundreds of reporters, anchors, technicians, support crews flooded the small Connecticut town as the story swelled and engulfed the country’s news agenda.
And how did they do? How have the news media, bristling with cutting-edge technologies and bolstered by networks of hunters and gatherers prowling the social media, handled this harrowing story?
The jury is out. The first thing that was apparent in the coverage was its haste—and its heedlessness. Within hours, the killer was misidentified, and the name and photo of his innocent brother streaked through the Internet. The killer’s connection with the school—hence, his presumed motive—was misreported. His slain mother’s connection with the school was wrongly stated. Minutes before the shooting started, he supposedly was buzzed through the school’s security doors because he was known to officials there. That too was wrong. He was diagnosed, with scant evidence, with Asperger’s syndrome, to the dismay of parents of children with that condition.
Of course, there’s nothing surprising about getting critical facts wrong in the early stages of breaking stories. But it’s worth asking whether such errors have become more, rather than less, tolerable among news people, as the velocity of reporting rises—and why it is that no thought is given to the harm that false information can do. Continue reading