This story by The Globe’s Simon Houpt Journalism: Messy media coverage of Connecticut shooting leaves trail of misinformation notes the many serious errors made by both traditional and new media outlets as they reported on the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn., and its aftermath. Let’s look at what caused those errors, and how the rush for instant news, fuelled in part by competition from social media, is affecting journalism.
Major breaking news is always chaotic. Mistakes are made in the rush to offer information to readers as soon as possible. I can’t think of a recent major tragedy when mistakes weren’t made – including the number of victims or other key details. Errors are made by social media users, bloggers, broadcast journalists and print journalists. Like many media organizations, The Globe and Mail made mistakes in its early coverage.
These mistakes included: the name of the shooter (naming his brother Ryan, not Adam Lanza) and the purported connection of his slain mother, Nancy Lanza, to the school (she wasn’t a teacher) and the suggestion that the shooter was allowed into the school (he shot his way in through locked doors).
Errors by other media included CBS reporting that the shooter was a father of a student at Sandy Hook school.
The most critical error – the name of the shooter – was based on inaccurate information coming from police sources relayed by wire services and television networks due to the fact that Adam Lanza was carrying his brother Ryan’s ID. Still, The Globe didn’t do something that would have been worse and that some other media did, which was to publish Ryan Lanza’s Facebook picture and personal information.
Stephen Northfield, The Globe’s deputy managing editor, digital, notes that The Globe did publish incomplete or inaccurate information on its website Friday afternoon. “Following CNN’s lead, we initially identified Ryan Lanza as the alleged gunman. There was confusion about the mother’s relationship with the school, the age of the shooter, and a number of other details that were straightened out eventually over the course of the weekend. While we obviously regret adding to some of the confusion, we held back what I would consider to be the more egregious errors – like publishing photos of people identifying them as the alleged shooter that turned out not to be true. I would always prefer being late than wrong.”
At least one website did publish Ryan Lanza’s Facebook picture and details from his page. I applaud The Globe editors for not using that picture because there was real doubt about the shooter’s identity.
News has been a 24/7 commodity for many years now, with increasing pressure to be first with the latest details. This pressure is only growing in an era where everyone can be a reporter on social media. One approach The Globe used in this case, and other recent fast-breaking major events, is to have both a traditional news story and a live blog, run by Globe editors, gathering the latest material from Globe reporters and other sources.
“It’s very common now for us to live blog these types of stories, which is big advantage but which also presents some perils,” Mr. Northfield says. “In a blog, we are working in real time, adding snippets from wires and websites, pulling in details from social media, etc. The blog is an ideal format for churning through a breaking story as it develops. The peril is that there’s a danger of publishing too quickly and correcting later if, as it did happen on Friday, something turns out to be wrong.
“What we try very hard to do is to signal to the reader what we know about a particular piece of information – pointing out the sources (e.g. CNN) and being very clear whether it has been officially confirmed, or whether there are contradictory reports. I think most readers recognize the approach, a bit like watching a real-time television broadcast. They understand that news gathering is a process, and that things will evolve. It doesn’t let us off the hook. We must apply rigour and be 100 per cent transparent about what we know and don’t know.”
I think transparency is the key here. Before social media, newsrooms would struggle with what was true and not right up to deadline. Now, deadlines are constant. Facing that kind of constant pressure, it is important to let readers know what information is being presented by reputable media organizations – even if it hasn’t been confirmed by The Globe and Mail. Journalists have to balance things such as who is reporting the information, are they are on the scene, are they in a position to know and what is their track record for accuracy.
In a live blog or in constantly updated stories, the stakes are higher for traditional media to get things right. It is always more important to be right than to be first. If a tweet from a non-journalist is incorrect, it is shrugged off, but not so with journalists and their organizations. Journalists must remember that their reputation and their organization’s reputation is based on a high level of trust.
Readers understand that the business is imperfect and that articles are rewritten, updated and corrected. Still, to avoid those corrections and rewrites, it is good to remember the basic journalism principles. If you can’t get something from official channels, you have to try very hard to find the truth unofficially, despite the problems or delays that would cause. If journalists had waited for the official police word, it would have been Sunday night before the public would have known that Adam Lanza was the shooter. The next best option for information is someone in the know who isn’t allowed to speak publicly. Often journalists will get information from a trusted police or government source who knows what is happening but isn’t authorized to speak on the record. If they can’t get the information that way, then they need several sources who can confirm the information.
He’s right that social media reporting is an important way to gather news. But the real key is for all journalists, amateur and professional, to remember the basics before they name someone as the perpetrator of a horrific crime. Even though social media and live blogs and all online journalism are good at correcting their errors, some of the more egregious ones can stick in people’s minds for a long time.
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