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American Journalism Review
The Massacre Miasma  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 2012/January 2013

The Massacre Miasma   

Reflections on the flurry of incorrect information in the early coverage of the Connecticut school shootings. Wed., December 19, 2012.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


The journalistic imperative of speed has been around probably as long as there has been journalism.

Sure, getting it right is, or should be, sacred. But the drive to get it first, or close to first, or at the very least to keep up with the pack, is powerful.

Particularly when it comes to megastories like the horrific massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, last Friday.

The race to gather information quickly in such highly charged circumstances often has ugly results, and this time was no exception. Particularly egregious was the fact that the mass murderer was widely misidentified. But there were plenty of other errors, too.

Among the many: Nancy Lanza, the mother of the killer, Adam Lanza, worked at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where the shootings took place; Lanza used a handgun; he was buzzed into the school. Check out BuzzFeed for a list.

But it's important to put the barrage of misinformation in perspective. These are hardly journalistic misdeeds on the order of two cable networks getting the U.S. Supreme Court health care ruling wrong when the decision had already been released, or a television journalist speculating irresponsibly about the suspect in the Aurora movie theater shootings. And they are worlds away from such cardinal sins as plagiarism and fabrication.

The errors came from journalists doing what they do in such situations, getting information from law enforcement sources. Or, in many instances in this saga, misinformation.

As Reuters' Jack Shafer points out, this is hardly unusual. It is a pattern seen in the early reporting on numerous cataclysmic events. And it's hardly likely to go away.

Nevertheless, the idea of pinning such a dastardly crime on the wrong person is totally unacceptable. It wasn't bad enough for Ryan Lanza that his brother killed his mother and 25 others, 20 of them children. He also had to live with the fact that for hours he was widely identified as the killer.

I'm not sure I'm prepared to go as far as MarketWatch's Jon Friedman, who calls for journalists to stop identifying mass murderers at all. Unfortunately, who these monsters are is an essential part of the story. But I do think there is merit in the proposal by the Washington Post's Charles Lane to only name the killers when officials are willing to do so on the record.

That's no panacea. But it's likely that waiting until an official is confident enough in the information to attach his or her name to it could prevent mistakes like the worst one in the Sandy Hook massacre.

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