How do we get correct information -- and avoid misinformation -- in times of high-pressure media frenzy?
Our subject for today is the journalistic goal of "getting the story right," which has rarely gotten quite all the priority some of us might wish, but has been taking kind of a new style of beating since the advent of the literally nonstop news cycle via cable and Internet.
Not surprisingly, it happened again in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting. And it's not that hard to understand how it happens. At such times it's impossible even to describe the demand for information. In the face of such a horror, people -- and I mean everybody -- has a desperate, soul-deep need to know. The pressure inside news organizations must be beyond imagining.
At a time like that, when the entire country is focused obsessively on one story, under the best of circumstances there isn't going to be anywhere near enough information available to satisfy the demand. And in a situation like this, where most of the information we wanted was exclusively (or nearly so) in the possession of people who are no longer living, and when in fact it's virtually impossible to find out who exactly those nonliving people are, the information vacuum must create an atmosphere of almost unbearable tension.
Of course the problem isn't unique to the media. One of the key points of contention in the Sandy Hook, the initial misidentification of the alleged shooter came from law-enforcement people who must have felt under exactly the same unbearable pressure. There's a limit to how long anyone responsible for disseminating information can say, "I'm really sorry, but this is all we know at this point. As soon as we know more, you'll know more." Adam Lanza was apparently carrying the identification of his older brother, Ryan (assuming this part of the story still hasn't been "updated"), and as WaPo media blogger Erik Wemple noted in a fascinating post on CNN's involvement in spreading the wrong information ("CNN addresses Ryan-Adam Lanza mis-ID"): "The media can do many things; one thing they cannot do is on-the-spot fact-checking of the cops."
All along the information chain, then, there is unimaginable pressure to produce information, and a deep unwillingness at every information-receiving stage (reporters to cops, news editors to reporters, viewers and readers to broadcasters and written media, etc.) to accept "Sorry, dunno" as an answer. All this time, remember, the rumor mill is ratcheting up -- the less information there is, the more fertile the information-conjurers. And each of those information receivers leans that much harder on his/her designated information supplier to give us some goddamn information.
Among the media cadres there is the additional pressure of the competition. All those news editors have more eyes than they have in their head trained on TVs, first, to see if there's any information to add to what they have, and second. to see if anybody else has stuff we don't. It's the same thing, really, but do you see how much more personal and ulcer-inducing it becomes when you frame it the second way? Everyone in the information chain has (a) dreams of becoming "Scoop," the information hero and (b) dreads becoming "Schnook," the sadsack (possibly no-longer-employed) working stiff who got scooped.
All that said, I want to present this WaPo op-ed piece "as is." Author Charles Lane is described as "a Post editorial writer, specializing in economic policy, financial issues and trade, and a contributor to the PostPartisan blog."
A MORE INTERESTING CASE -- OF THE
Published: December 17
"Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it," wrote Jonathan Swift, "so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect."
Surely Ryan Lanza, the brother of Adam Lanza, who committed a massacre on Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn., would agree with Swift. Ryan was miles away, minding his own business, when the media, including The Post, named him as the author of the bloodbath -- and for the next few hours he was no longer an anonymous office toiler but a notorious mass murderer.
Yes, the truth finally limped along later. Still, the false accusation compounded Ryan's agony at learning that his younger brother used his mother's gun to kill her, 20 children, six additional adults and, finally, himself.
Many say we need a post-Newtown "national conversation" about gun violence. We do.
While we're at it, let's soul-search about the fact that the instantaneous spread of misinformation after mass killings is becoming almost as frequent as the massacres. And some of our leading media institutions are culpable.
On Jan. 8, 2011, NPR and others mistakenly reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had been killed in a shooting rampage that did claim six lives.
On July 20, 2012, Brian Ross of ABC suggested that the shooter in the Aurora movie theater massacre belonged to the Colorado tea party; Ross had confused the actual killer, James Holmes, with another person of that name who popped up on an Internet search.
Initial reporting on the Dec. 11 shooting at a Portland, Ore., shopping mall included inflated body counts, inaccurate descriptions of the suspect and bogus rumors of multiple gunmen.
Something has to be done about this problem, too.
Calling for restraint on the flow of information -- even, perhaps, self-restraint -- might make me as popular with my media brethren as a gun control advocate in the National Rifle Association.
Like gun enthusiasts, we journalists have our very own section in the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment. And, not unlike the Second Amendment crowd, we tend to view complaints about misuse and abuse of our favorite freedom as a threat to it.
Reporters can also claim, quite legitimately, that we rush to correct our errors, which are often the errors of our sources, passed on by us in good faith. Certainly those defenses are available to media that named Ryan Lanza as the Newtown shooter; the story was corrected later, and it did indeed originate with law enforcement. If you can't trust the cops, who can you trust?
Fair enough. But that just makes me question the judgment of the law enforcement officials who provided Ryan Lanza's name to reporters so soon after the Newtown crime. What purpose did that serve? There was no manhunt; for all the police knew, the perpetrator was dead.
And by the way, I don't trust the cops -- at least not blindly. In 2006, law enforcement told us that Duke lacrosse players raped an exotic dancer; the accuser had fabricated her story.
In 1989, New York City detectives said a group of black teenagers had confessed to raping and beating "the Central Park Jogger." The kids went to prison, until DNA tests exonerated them and proved another man's guilt.
Like the freedom to own a gun, the latitude to publish a defendant's full name, prior to conviction, is less sacrosanct in Europe than in the United States. In 2008, German media initially referred to notorious Austrian child abuser and rapist Josef Fritzl as "Josef F." well after the press in other countries had fully identified him.
Such norms are no more readily imported than European gun laws. I would certainly rather have our near-limitless media freedom, defects and all.
But I don't think it's asking too much of the U.S. media, and the law enforcement agencies that feed us information, to learn from recent experience and to act on those lessons. Perhaps the media should not identify alleged shooters absent on-the-record confirmation, as opposed to citing unnamed sources as CNN, for one, did in Newtown.
Just as the revolver has given way to the rapid-fire Glock pistol, modern technology enables the media, our sources and our audience to communicate, accurately and inaccurately, with breathtakingly sudden impact.
Journalism doesn't need new laws to adapt -- just a genuine rededication to the values of accuracy, skepticism and prudence with which we already claim to operate. No more excuses.
Among the reputations we save may be our own.
SCHOOLTEACHER WHO WASN'T
Since the Lane piece, the Post's Paul Farhi has done rather a more interesting follow-up (all links onsite), focusing on "a relatively minor error in a string of inaccuracies about the Newtown shootings": the story that Adam and Ryan Lanza's mother was a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School -- "an important tale in its own right." I for one wasn't aware for a long time that it isn't true -- unlike the identity of the presumed shooter, which was corrected almost immediately.
As the story made the rounds, TV commentators speculated that Adam Lanza acted out of rage toward his mother and had transferred his murderous impulses toward the innocent lives under her care. “When you think about the details of the crime, he began by shooting his mother in the face, taking her weapon and then destroying everything precious to her, her colleagues and her children, and then killing himself,” Charles Krauthammer, a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post, said on Fox News.The story spread, and was reported by all manner of oh-so-respectable sources, like CBS, CNN, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. It was later "confirmed" by the AP.
The error appears to have originated Fridaywith a carefully hedged Associated Press report about the shootings just after noon, about three hours after the first reports of shots being fired at the school.
“At least one parent said Lanza’s mother was a substitute teacher at the school,” the wire service said. “But her name did not appear on a staff list. And the official said investigators were unable to establish any connection so far between her and the school.”
Although the misidentification of the suspect was corrected within an hour, the teacher angle wasn’t knocked down for almost 11 hours after it was first reported. At 11:16 p.m., AP moved an update, saying no connection had been found. Nevertheless, CNN and other news outlets continued to report the story as fact until early Saturday.
An AP spokesman, Paul Colford, said the news service got bad information from sources “we had no reason to disbelieve.” He added, “We were confident in our sources, and our sources were wrong.”
Yet the widespread reporting of the teacher story may have highlighted the news media’s tendency to fill in the blanks on initially confusing and tragic stories, says W. Joseph Campbell, a communications studies professor at American University.
The idea that Nancy Lanza was killed with her students “is a narrative that does hang together and explains the story in ways the real story doesn’t,” said Campbell, the author of “Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism,” a study of media-driven myths. “It’s hard for us to accept the idea that something so horrible was completely random. The idea that she had little or no connection to the school makes it harder to wrap your mind around such a horrific and senseless act.”
Campbell documented a similar phenomenon of “narrative fulfillment” in news coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Many accounts described rampant acts of violence and mayhem in New Orleans that turned out to be mostly false. Such stories, he said, were fed by the media’s assumption that New Orleans was populated by a lawless underclass given to such behavior. Foreign press outlets, he said, were quick to add a layer of anti-Americanism, suggesting that the alleged chaos reflected the decline of American power.
While the media have made errors in many other breaking-news situations, the number of errors that grew out of the events in Newtown suggests “we’re dealing with a new normal in terms of what happens in major events,” said Craig Silverman, who writes Regret the Error, a blog about reporting mistakes.
Constant deadlines, intense competition, reduced news staffs and instantaneous transmission via social networks, Silverman says, make it likely that it will happen again. “People have to realize that this is going to happen a lot,” he said.
Given that it’s unlikely that competition for news will somehow slow down, he advises the media to find “constructive ways” to be as transparent as possible with readers and viewers. “We are our own worst enemies,” he said. “We should tell people what we’re not ready to report and why. Not everything is rock solid. We should tell them how solid what we know is.”