Breaking News In Connecticut: Facts Victim Of Media Rush To Be First

map Newtown CT

Image from Newtown.org

[Updated] In discussions about the future of journalism in the digital era, there are lots of arguments about the importance of professional reporting. Fact-checking. Accountability.

The tragedy in Newtown, CT on Friday puts a big dent in these arguments. The dents may be so large as to be fatal.

Dent number one: Nancy Lanza was a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and it was her class that was the focus of the shooter. Dent number two: the shooter was Ryan, not Adam, Lanza. Oh, and there’s the falsely fingered Facebook profile.

Abandoned in the rush to be first (and to generate digital traffic): verification:

Journalism’s “essence is a discipline of verification” (The Elements of Journalism). “Rather than publishing another news outlet’s scoop, journalists have tended to require one of their reporters to call a source to confirm it first.”

And from the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics:

Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.

Although the second claim was corrected more quickly than the first, both were based on anonymous sources (perhaps this yellow flag should be changed to red). Moreover, the first claim remains uncorrected on mainstream media news stories.

Claim #1: Nancy Lanza falsely IDed

Josh Marshall points out that national media reports about Lanza being a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School were often unsourced and uncorrected, even late on Friday.

However, one of the challenges when tracking how stories are reported is that news organizations are updating the original story as it develops. In the main, this is a good thing (unchanging URL) if the news organizations indicate what has changed (a rare occurrence).

So we turn to tweets and other headlines to deconstruct the allegations.

This story is timestamped Friday at 4.31 pm Pacific (the shootings were shortly after 9.30 am Eastern):

The exact connection of Lanza’s mother to the school is unclear; sources told the Associated Press that she was a substitute teacher at the school.

Yet at 7.37 pm (six minutes later) Eastern on Friday, AP was still asserting that Lanza worked at the school, citing an anonymous source:

Adam Lanza’s mother, Nancy, was a teacher at the school, said the law enforcement official.

[...]

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they official were not authorized to speak publicly about the developing investigation.

Let’s think about this for a minute.

By 7.30 pm the story was almost 10 hours old.

This is a homogenous, wealthy community of fewer than 10,000 households. (Just like Columbine.)

I am incredulous that in a community this small and insular this “fact” was still being (mis)reported 10 hours later, especially since Lanza is not listed on the Sandy Hook Elementary School staff page. I know that national news reports are suspect in situations like this one, but wasn’t there anyone on the ground talking to locals?

Look at how this “fact” was reported by traditional media. No qualifications at all. None.

From an CBS affiliate:

From an ABC affiliate:

A Wall Street Journal blogger reported, in the last two graphs of a story, late on Friday:

A former school board official in Newtown called into question earlier reports that Nancy Lanza had been connected to Sandy Hook Elementary School, possibly as part of the teaching staff.

“No one has heard of her,” said Lillian Bittman, who served on the local school board until 2011. “Teachers don’t know her.”

Yet this Washington Post story from Friday (no timestamp) still identifies her as a schoolteacher, even though the headline appears to have been changed.

His parents, Nancy and Peter Lanza, separated about a decade ago, and his mother, a kindergarten teacher at Sandy Hook, remained in the family’s home with her sons, Adam and Ryan Lanza, according to Ryan Kraft, 25, who was a neighbor.

Moreover the divorce was in 2009. There is no source for the claim that the couple had been separated for a decade. In fact, there is at least one competing story that suggests the divorce was a surprise to Peter. (The divorce date comes from court documents.)

I learned about the story after noon Pacific and was struck then by the claim that Lanza was a teacher at the school. It made the story feel even more tragic, which is, perhaps, why the narrative wasn’t promptly corrected. At that time (approximately six hours after the story broke) national news accounts suggested Ryan Lanza had been arrested as an accomplice.

Claim #2: Ryan Lanza falsely IDed

As with the claim about Nancy Lanza being a school teacher, there is no “alleged” associated with the claim that Ryan was the shooter. Per my memory (AP’s story has been “updated” so the prior versions are relegated to digital dust), the attribution was an anonymous law enforcement officer.

The NY Post has deleted its tweet, but there is no such thing as “deleted” in today’s digital universe.

Deleted NY Post Tweet

From an MSNBC anchor:

NBC News:

CBS News via KUTV staff:

And from radio:

Then there’s AP reporter Adam Goldman:

Late on Friday, a Wall Street Journal blog reported:

Earlier, a law-enforcement official incorrectly identified the suspect as 24-year-old Ryan Lanza, who is Adam’s brother.

Yet the WSJ writer failed to note was that the LEO was an anonymous source. The NY Times explains the error thusly in the foot of this story:

Ryan Lanza’s identification had been found on the body of his underage brother, leading to the mistaken reports.

What’s worse is that these same media organizations directed readers to Facebook:

CNN, the Huffington Post, Slate and other news organizations pointed to the Facebook page of one Ryan Lanza, who hails from Newtown and currently lives in New Jersey. “Ryan Lanza Facebook Page Shows Suggestive Details Of Apparent Newtown, Connecticut Shooting Suspect,” was Huffington Post’s original headline before it realized the error. As of 5 p.m. EST, the Connecticut state police are declining to identify the shooter.

The Wired headline is wrong: “Internet Identifies, Threatens Wrong Man as Newtown Shooter.”

The “Internet” didn’t identify the wrong man.

Powerful media did.

Moreover, in addition to identifying the wrong suspect, they then identified the wrong Ryan:

And the HuffPo is as mainstream as CNN, in my opinion, although they – unlike any other organization – clearly articulated their mistake re Ryan v Adam.

Are we surprised that what followed was a digital lynch mob on Twitter and Facebook?

Is there any culpability on the part of Connecticut law enforcement given that 6+ hours later they were still “declining to identify the shooter”? Without a doubt, the anonymous LEOs need to be identified and reprimanded because their loose lips lead to these digital vigilantes.

Where do we go from here?

Fiascos like this one should nix any discussions aimed at retaining the current corporate media infrastructure. [added: see comments on this post]

Vet before publishing should be the mantra of any reporter or news organization. Allegations must be clearly identified as such, even (especially?) in tweets and Facebook updates.

Retweets?

If you’re a news person, your responsibility to vet before retweeting should be a number one rule. Don’t retweet headlines that treat allegations as fact. Ever.

Everyone else? Try thinking before sharing.

Update: more examples

16 December, 1:30 pm Pacific

Alan Colmes Liberland (radio show) is influential enough to be picked up by Memeorandum. He completely overstates the referenced article in his headline. Completely.

Here is his headline:

Gunman Had Earlier Altercation With School Staff; Unsuccessfully Tried To Buy Rifle

Here are the relevant excerpts from the NBC story (unchanged since I read it last night):

Officials also told NBC News that Lanza unsuccessfully tried to buy a rifle at a Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Danbury three days before the slaughter, but later said they could not confirm the report, which was based on information from members of the public.

Note the (once more) use of anonymous sourcing. PEOPLE! Without a source, there is no accountability. No “The Buck Stops Here.”

News Organizations: enough already.

We used to be honest and called it rumor.

The motive for the mass killing was unknown, but officials told NBC’s Pete Williams that they were investigating a report that someone had an “altercation” with four staff members at the school on Thursday – three of whom were killed the next day.

Once more, unnnamed sources and vague claims.

Screen capture Alan Colmes - Liberaland

Screen capture Alan Colmes – Liberaland

He was not alone. Slate did it, too, which begs the question: how did NBC write the first version of that story?

Original Story: About Newtown CT

Here are a few facts about Newtown (town not borough), CT that I haven’t seen in any news story (please see comments on this post):

Edited to highlight phrases (bold, italic).

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  • DR. CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist

    thanks Kathy, so true, esp with twitter and facebook mobi making all things race through space. It’s a good reminder. Also, sometimes wonder if something is corrected, page 17, 4th column, two sentences… you know, one wonders if it will ever read straight.

    for instance, and this is rampant, and since the shootings were nearly 14 years ago, dont know if it will ever be corrected… and that is that Sandy Hook is wealthy community just like Columbine community. I dont know about Sandy Hook cause I dont live there, but I do live walking distance to Columbine High School. There were well off people here. There is also a huge working class community and apartment complexes colloquially called ‘the slums of Bowmar…” all these at part of the Columbine community… lower economic class, lower middle class economically and upper middle class. The first reporters in, many disrespectful, intrusive, not weighing grandstanders vs people with the actual stories who were far more reticent. First news people with their sattelite dishes all over people’s yards uninvited, their thrusting mics into people’s faces even on the way to church… they characterized the community as ‘wealthy’ because they didnt look, didnt care, reported on the face of matters, didnt live in the community, just didnt see… and many believe downright dishonest on purpose, as having a ‘wealthy’ community with a slaughter reads better to some minds that a mixed community of poor, mid and upper economic classes where so much went wrong.

  • http://wiredpen.com KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst

    Hi, Dr E – I think that there are ways to make corrections that make sense. The HuffPo did a pretty good job here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/14/connecticut-elementary-shooter_n_2302541.html

    I would hope that reporters on the ground do more than I could do with the general stats which certainly show that Columbine and Newtown are statistically more alike than they are like the “average” American community in terms of income and race.

    I try to find local reporting of any national story. That’s why yesterday, I went to the Hartford Courant: http://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-newtown-sandy-hook-school-shooting-20121214,0,5043872.story A friend referred me to the News Times: http://www.newstimes.com/news/article/Shootings-reported-at-Newtown-school-4118505.php

  • http://wiredpen.com KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst

    A shout out to Mother Jones for updating the story in a readable manner: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/12/what-happened-newtown-connecticut-elementary-school-shooting

  • DR. CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist

    thanks Kathy. Appreciate it. We here have given up on getting media to see that columbine is not the same as jeffereson county, which is not the same as the jefferson county school district which draws to columbine high school from several communities. But, it’s ok. I’ve been in touch with many of my teachers from Columbine and many are swaying with all this horrible news from Conn. Old scar tissue can truly ache when triggered by words, sights, sounds. That’s where the need is here. I also noticed CNN doing interviews on the ground in Conn. which are NOT in tone or intrusion anything like what was done at Columbine. I think Anderson Cooper began that trend when he went to NOLA and was utterly sincere with people there, and with viewers. Not sure, but have seen up close and behind the scenes, way too much of the opposite.

    I hope with you, for thorough and thoughtful ‘first media.’ Your point in this post is much needed.

  • The_Ohioan

    Excellent reflections. Social media can be the best of communications and the worst of communications but should never, never, be the only communication.

    24 hour coverage of any situation will inevitably include speculation, just to fill in the time if nothing else. Learning to wait before making any decision about what has really happened – priceless.

  • http://www.americaincontext.com Barky

    Kathy’s spot on. But it’s shouting at the wind. Most media outlets are but subsidiaries in giant corporate conglomerates. It’s not about truth or accuracy, it’s about attracting viewers/listeners/hits with flashy graphics & “don’t touch that dial” fear factors designed to hold viewer’s attention through commercial breaks.

    It’s no coincidence that breakdowns in society & politics parallels the demise of journalism. A society that doesn’t reflect (the purpose of real journalism) doesn’t mature. And so, here we are.

  • http://wiredpen.com KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst

    Thanks – I just added another example from Alan Colmes, syndicated radio talk show host and co-host of Hannity and Colmes on the Fox News Channel.

    Hi, Barky – that’s why I specifically said this:

    Fiascos like this one should nix any discussions aimed at retaining the current corporate media infrastructure

    There have been proposals that we subsidize news conglomerates – the mass hysteria and trashing to basic journalistic ethics exhibited here should be exhibit 1 as to why that’s not good for America.

    And TO — yes, 24×7 cable news contributes as does the race for clicks. :-/

  • http://wiredpen.com KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst

    Dr E – I don’t watch TV news. I will trust your observations.

  • http://wiredpen.com KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst
  • ordinarysparrow

    Thanks Kathy

    I was listening to NPR Friday as this was given full coverage….they were very cautious on attempting to validate the accuracy…they would say certain new organizations are reporting this, but we cannot substantiate this… It was like they were spending as much time trying to clarify what was not reliable as what had happened…