Myths and misinformation littered news reports as the media updated horrified audiences on the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, last Friday, highlighting the dangers and ethical problems inherent in covering an unfolding tragedy with an eye for being first rather than being correct.
Lois Boynton, professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said reporters have two duties: reporting accurate information and reporting information quickly.
“Those two important values can sometimes collide, so you end up with misinformation,” Boynton said.
The media’s rush to break details of the tragedy gave rise to confusion and misinformation about the massacre.
A timeline of CNN’s reporting illustrates this point.
As news of a shooting first emerged Friday morning, there was initial confusion about the status of the students in the school. At about 10:40 a.m., CNN’s Don Lemon reported multiple times that students were not being evacuated as the school was on lockdown. CNN had contradicted that initial report by 12:35, saying, “The children were told to immediately get out of the building.”
CNN’s coverage of the weapons used was equally confused. At 11:45 in the morning, Ashleigh Banfield reported, “Two weapons were recovered at the scene.” Ten minutes later, she directly attributed injuries to these two handguns. The most recent reports now say that the murderer used a semiautomatic rifle with high-capacity clips to kill the students and adults in the school.
At 12:45, CNN cited an ABC affiliate who reported that the police had detained a second shooter. CNN updated this report 45 minutes later saying that the second shooter, “a man wearing a black jacket and camouflage pants, [was] escorted out of the woods by police personnel.”
About 10 minutes later, at 1:40, CNN again linked the handguns to the murders. “Two semi-automatic handguns were retrieved from the scene. We heard from some witnesses that said that they heard dozens of rounds, possibly 100 rounds being fired inside that school,” CNN reported.
The identity of the shooter was still a mystery at this point in the reporting. Wolf Blitzer broke that part of the story at 2:15, incorrectly reporting that the shooter was Ryan Lanza. Blitzer cited a source “from this area,” but also noted that the police did not confirm the detail. He said the police announced that “A search warrant is being executed at this time.”
Up to that point, CNN had not corrected its erroneous report connecting the handguns to the murders. At 4:15, however, CNN reported that a third gun had been recovered, a .223 Bushmaster, in addition to the two handguns reported earlier.
Blitzer continued to report the shooter’s name as “Ryan Lanza” until 5:45 p.m., a full three and a half hours after the initial erroneous report. Blitzer corrected himself at this time, saying, “I want to clarify what we earlier, like other news organizations, were reporting that the suspected shooter was Ryan Lanza, age 24. We now believe the shooter was not Ryan Lanza. Ryan Lanza was taken into custody, we're told, earlier in the day.”
Just one minute after this correction, however, Blitzer introduced another error into the developing story, reporting that the shooter's mother “was a teacher at this school, the Sandy Hook Elementary School.” CNN’s Susan Candiotti repeated this error again about a half hour later. Both Candiotti and Blitzer reported correctly that the mother, at that point unidentified, had been slain in her home.
Almost four and a half hours after linking Ryan Lanza to the shooting, CNN finally fully corrected this detail and reported, “It is Adam Lanza, 20 years old, who is the shooter. His brother, Ryan, is the one that was taken away for questioning by authorities in Hoboken, New Jersey, and is expected that he will be released. He is not considered a suspect.”
Over these eight hours of CNN’s reporting, three key errors emerged. First, the killings were wrongly attributed to handguns. There has been continued confusion about the nature of the guns used in the murders even as more accurate details emerged. The Washington Examiner’s Timothy Carney criticized a New York Times article for “[managing] to perpetuate many of the most stubborn myths about rifles.”
Second, there was significant confusion about the identity of the shooter. The shooter was initially identified as the shooter’s brother, and there were reports of a second shooter being detained. The actual shooter acted alone. Websites and cable networks even showed Ryan Lanza’s Facebook profile and identified him as the killer. The Associated Press blamed the confusion on law enforcement officials transposing the brothers’ names.
Third, the shooter’s mother was initially reported as a teacher at the school. The New York Times story from Friday contains corrections reflecting this error.
Boynton said that while it is standard journalistic practice to verify information from sources, “When you’re in a crisis mode, that’s not always easy to do, it’s not always practical to do.”
Journalists have to figure out what sources they can trust in a crisis situation, she said. Eyewitnesses are often considered the best sources, but even they should be viewed with suspicion, she said.
“It’s hard to figure out what’s going on even in the middle of it,” she said.