The horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut yesterday has shocked the country. Words cannot describe the emotions felt upon learning that 20 children had been brutally massacred by the killer.
Naturally, we all struggle to understand what to say and how to analyze this occurrence. The media, struggling to be the first to “break” new events, often make tragic factual mistakes. We, in turn, can perpetuate media misinformation for years to come.
In this case, perhaps the most damaging piece of misinformation was the name of the shooter. Initially identified as 24-year-old Ryan Lanza, it was soon revealed that the shooter was in fact Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old brother of Ryan. This false announcement undoubtedly caused a stream of unfounded accusations against Ryan.
Reports also indicated that Lanza was let into the school through an intercom system, prompting speculation about the school’s lax security – until that report was corrected as well.
The shooter’s mother, Nancy Lanza, was also purported to be a teacher or employee at the school; however, reports are now indicating otherwise.
This media misinformation is dangerous. Innocent lives are damaged when fact-checking procedures are foregone in an effort to lead the news cycle. Unfortunately, this misinformation is common in shooting tragedies. Recall the Colorado shooting just a few months ago, when ABC falsely identified an unrelated “James Holmes” through Facebook.
One of the most alarming stories of misinformation is described in the book Columbine, by Dave Cullen. In this thoroughly researched report, Cullen details the blatantly false descriptions of the Columbine shooting that persist to this day. He is quoted in the New York Times,
“I ran with the journalistic pack that created the myths we are still living with. We created those myths for one reason: we were trying to answer the burning question of why, and we were trying to answer it way too soon. I spent 10 years studying Columbine, and we all know what happened there, right? Two outcast loners exacted revenge against the jocks for relentlessly bullying them.
Not one bit of that turned out to be true.”
How do we avoid exacerbating the problem of media misinformation? In a previous post this summer after the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, I quoted some advice from Eric Golub of Washington Times Communities that rings true again today:
“The right thing to do is the one thing that normal Americans know how to do that the chattering classes have not mastered. We need to all be quiet, talk less, and listen more.”
My deepest prayers go out to the families and friends of those affected by this indescribable tragedy.