[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.
Mother of alleged shooter, Ryan Lanza, was a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary school and she is among the dead
— Sky News Newsdesk (@SkyNewsBreak) December 14, 2012
From an CBS affiliate:
WCBS-TV: Nancy Lanza identified as mother of Connecticut school shooting suspect, was teacher at elementary school
— Matthew Keys (@TheMatthewKeys) December 14, 2012
From an ABC affiliate:
#CTSHOOTING UPDATE: It is believed that Ryan Lanza’s connection to school is his mother, who’s a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary
— ABC7 Eyewitness News (@ABC7) December 14, 2012
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.
— BRIAN • 9463 ? (@iPulledDaTrigga) December 14, 2012
From an MSNBC anchor:
Suspect now identified as Ryan Lanza in Connecticut school shooting. Lanza’s mother is a teacher at Sandy Hook elementary school.
— Thomas Roberts (@ThomasARoberts) December 14, 2012
— Matt Soleyn (@MattSoleyn) December 14, 2012
CBS News via KUTV staff:
@cbsnews reporting that suspect Ryan Lanza’s mom was a teacher at the elementary school he allegedly opened fire at this morning.
— Holly Menino (@HollyMenino) December 14, 2012
And from radio:
UPDATE: Conn. school gunman ID’d as Ryan Lanza, whose mother was a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School
— Chris Miller (@ChrisMillerWBT) December 14, 2012
Then there’s AP reporter Adam Goldman:
AP: Official says Ryan Lanza is dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
— Adam Goldman (@adamgoldmanap) December 14, 2012
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:
I’m FB friends with the profile being sent around. This is a real screen grab. twitter.com/MattBors/statu…
— Matt Bors (@MattBors) December 14, 2012
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.
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.
He was not alone. Slate did it, too, which begs the question: how did NBC write the first version of that story?
UPDATE: Adam Lanza reportedly had an “altercation” with four staff members at Sandy Hook the day before the massacre: slate.me/XrZW8c
— Slate (@Slate) December 15, 2012
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):
- 2010 Population: 27,560 (2010 Columbine CO: 24,280)
- 2010 Total number of households: 9,459 (2010 Columbine CO: 9,411)
- 2010 Racial composition: 94% white. (2010 Columbine, CO: 92%; 2010 US average: 78%)
- 2010 Median household income: $108,148 (2006-2010 Columbine, CO: $93,883; 2007-2011 US: $52,762)
- 2010 Mean household income: $136,651 (2006-2010 Columbine, CO: $107,050; 2010 US: $69,918 – pdf))
- 2011 Poverty rate: 3.3% – pdf (Columbine: NA; 2010 US: 15.1%
- 2009 House sales, median: $438,500 – pdf (Connecticut: $265,000; 2009 US: $216,700 – pdf)
- Fairfield County CT is a bedroom community for New York City
Edited to highlight phrases (bold, italic).