Sandy Hook Shooting: How the Media Screwed Up the Reporting of This Tragedy


In the immediate aftermath of the horrific Newtown shooting, both traditional and new media sources disseminated a significant amount of misinformation. This is a consequence of the reality that new media organizations, PolicyMic included, operate around a 24/7 news cycle and compete to have the latest information to drive traffic.

As Peter Applebome and Brian Stelter articulated in the New York Times, "On Friday, there was a succession of reports about the shooting and the gunman that turned out to be wrong: reports about the gunman's name, about his mother's occupation, about how he got into the building."

Ryan Lanza's name is now forever tainted, and his privacy has clearly been violated in extreme ways. Furthermore, there was rampant speculation on the web sites of the American news networks that Adam Lanza's mother was a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary. Then, when that proved untrue, the reports stated that she was a teacher's aid. It took quite some time before it was reported that Lanza's mother had no affiliation with the school.

Furthermore, there were numerous false reports that Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary, voluntarily let Lanza into the school, recognizing him as the son of a colleague. Now we know that Lanza was dressed in a bulletproof vest and wore a ski mask. He also broke a window to enter the school. Another story proven false.

Applebome and Stelter continue, "The confusion continued into Saturday when NBC broadcast an exclusive report that the gunman had an altercation with four staff members at the school the day before the shootings, according to state and federal officials. A revised account played down the possibility of an altercation."

As blogger and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis wrote on his blog, BuzzMachine:

"I am a journalist and journalism professor who screwed up. After the shooting, I followed the trail of many on Twitter to an account that was written by a person of the same name that had been broadcast on TV news as that of the shooter. It was eerie reading and I said just that. I did not use the name of the person or the name of the account because I knew better: these facts could change. But then I also foolishly did not include a conditional statement in my tweet: I did not say 'if this is the account of the killer, then …' Or I did not say this was the 'alleged' or 'reputed' account of the person named as the killer. These are basic, basic journalistic skills drilled until they are reflexes and I would use them in any story for print. I didn't use them online. That was wrong. We don't learn these things as journalists just to cover ourselves or to sound like journalists. We learn them because the key skill of the journalist is to say what we do *not* know and to make that clear. That is the essence of credibility."

But whereas Jarvis has apologized, most others have not.

In the quest to report the news first, rather than to report the news best, the media have failed. Though the failures of the media did not cause any additional bloodshed in this specific situation, had a second killer been on the loose, or had someone taken violent action against a falsely accused perpetrator, the media would have blood on its hands. I consider The New York Times the most credible news source in America. On Friday, I was constantly refreshing the Times' homepage for updates on the shooting, updates that seemingly never came. Despite my disappointment at the time, it's clear what happened: Whereas other organizations reported nonsense, the Times were fact-checking before publishing, and for that, they should be commended.