Shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School once again demonstrate a troubling paradox: A news story can be accurate and wrong.
The aftermath of the massacre quickly provided reporters with opportunities to put out stories that accurately reported wildly incorrect but seemingly authoritative information.
The first, worst mistake was identifying Ryan Lanza as the shooter. It was his kid brother, Adam. The source for the confusion was someone in the army of local lawmen that descended on the school. Knowing how rarely authorities make such identifications so quickly didn’t cause reporters to hesitate. It was red meat. Reporters bit.
Reporters trying to tell an incredible story were not wrong to rely on vital and credible information that they could not verify under calamitous conditions.
Compounding the identification error was the ease with which news media turned to social media and shared all they learned from Ryan’s Facebook profile.
I have no idea how journalists felt when they learned they’d blamed the wrong guy for slaughtering children, but if someone told me they were sickened, sick to their stomach, I’d believe them.
Corrections were prompt once the confusion became clear. Embarrassed once, the correction took time to be verified to avoid further error.
Another major story that accurately reported misinformation was that Ryan/Adam killed their mother Nancy as she taught her class at Sandy Hook school. She didn’t teach there. Again, we don’t know who gave out that bad information, but it would have been difficult, given the pressure to make sense of the shootings, for outsider journalists to figure out how to verify or debunk that relevant “fact.”
Nancy Lanza was the first victim Friday, her home and body chillingly described later as the “secondary crime site” being investigated.
Yes, again, I’ll cut reporters there some slack. Unlike blaming the older brother for the killings, putting Nancy Lanza in the school was a harmless error. She was dead and it didn’t affect the larger story. But it proved again that under time pressure and with limited opportunities to verify what they’re told, reporters sometimes will accurately report misinformation given in good faith by sources who believe they know what they’re talking about. Anyone with a badge and gun tends to become a source.
Other errors involved misinformation that Adam fought with teachers at the school Thursday and that Adam was admitted to the otherwise locked school on Friday.
Changing death tolls were typical of an evolving disaster story. The magnitude of the massacre aroused initial disbelief; who’d massacre so many children? NPR and BBC World Service reported shifting death tolls close enough to communicate the enormity of what police found.
News media quickly tried the American Formula — a simple explanation for a complex problem — but psychologists, psychiatrists and others quickly tried to shut down loose talk about Asperger’s Syndrome, autism, etc. Without exception, these specialists stressed the difference between a profile (useful for prediction) and pattern (which they find in these killings). Adam fit the pattern of American civilian modern mass killers: a bright, socially awkward young white man with access to firearms.
Nancy Lanza owned the Glock and Sig Sauer semi-automatic pistols and semi-automatic assault-style Bushmaster rifle that Adam carried. Gun control advocates won’t overlook the hundreds of cartridges Adam had in magazines or clips. All of that was legal. But assuming each clip carried more than 10 rounds, those magazines were restricted by federal law that Republicans refused to renew in 2004.
Every medium — even radio web pages — wants images of a major story. The first, powerful photo showed children being led to safety by a female state trooper. A local journalist rushing to the school took it through her windshield and AP circulated it.
Despite the errors and competitive pressures, news media generally showed restraint in initial coverage. Fox News predictably was the exception. Pundit and former GOP presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee ignored gays and abortion to blame the massacre on ungodly liberals: “We have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?”It was a reprise of Huckabee’s Fox News response to the earlier theater shooting in Aurora, Colo.: “We don’t have a crime problem, a gun problem or even a violence problem. What we have is a sin problem. And since we’ve ordered God out of our schools, and communities, the military and public conversations, you know we really shouldn’t act so surprised … when all hell breaks loose.”
Hicks drove the mile and a quarter and arrived behind the first dozen police officers. She started taking photographs through her windshield and captured her image of a line of children being led away from the slaughter. “I’m conflicted,” Hicks said about her photo. “I don’t want people to be upset with me, and I do appreciate the journalists, especially, who have commented, saying ‘We’re just documenting the news.’ It’s harder when it’s in your hometown and these are children we’re gonna watch grow up, the ones who made it. I know people are gonna be upset, but at the same time I felt I was doing something important.”
Fellow editor John Voket explained what was behind that image.
“Police and school system have a protocol” for evacuation. “Children get into a conga line, shoulder to shoulder, and the only person that’s allowed to keep their eyes open is the locomotive at the front of the line, usually an adult. And every other kid has to keep their eyes closed from the minute they were exiting the classroom to when they got about a couple hundred yards into the parking lot.”
• Voket arrived about 20 minutes later and colleague Hicks “passed the baton” to him. Hicks also is a volunteer firefighter. The firehouse is next to the school. “I literally put on my firefighter gear . . . I was there as a firefighter probably for not even more than 20 minutes before my editor said he wanted me back in the office to work with him to coordinate coverage from there.”
• Voket continued reporting, but “We operate a little differently because our job is to take care of the community so we were inside helping to comfort victims and trying to provide human support without necessarily making reporting the No. 1 priority. The publisher came down to comfort some of the families a little later in the day.” R. Scudder Smith has been Bee publisher since 1973; he is the fourth member of his family to run The Bee since they founded it in 1877. The paper, which has a full-time editorial staff of eight, circulates to about two-thirds of the community of about 29,000.
• It was Friday and the weekly Bee front page was ready to print. It couldn’t be changed. “We’ve been putting everything on our website,” publisher Smith told AP.
Voket added that the traffic surge repeatedly crashed the website until the Bee acquired “an intermediary service to supersize our bandwidth . . . We got back up and running this (Saturday) morning.” The staff used social media to spread information about school lockdowns, re-routed traffic, and grief counseling. “Facebook and Twitter accounts have been a lifeline to our community and it shows because 20 percent of the community are following us.” The Bee also was “looking at doing a special extra to be on the newsstands Monday.”
• For those of us outside Newtown, Conn., we can turn to the renewed duel over gun control. If it were a song, tired and familiar gun control lyrics would be among “Worst Hits Ever.” It didn’t take long for gun control advocates to embrace the Sandy Hook massacre and the bellicose NRA to opt for rare silence. Obama renewed his unredeemed calls for gun control although he and Mitt Romney dodged the issue in the just-ended campaign.
• After the Sandy Hook slaughter, fair and balanced Fox News banned discussion of gun control from the cable network. Maybe Fox News feared we really would decide if they really reported. New York magazine said the ban spotlights the “growing chasm between Rupert Murdoch and [Fox News president] Roger Ailes.” Ailes reportedly is a gun enthusiast. Murdoch, CEO of News Corp., which owns Fox News, had tweeted a call for stricter gun control, imploring for “some bold leadership action” from Obama.
• Let me be churlish when everyone else is sympathizing with families, survivors and first responders. Slaughtering 20 children is awful, but reporters and editors are familiar with how badly Americans treat urban, suburban, small town and rural children every day. In Obama’s Chicago and many other urban areas, gunfire is an omnipresent fact of childhood. Possibly one-fourth of all American children live in poverty as defined by federal guidelines. For these kids, federally funded school meals might be more than a complement to home meals. Health care for poor and malnourished children isn’t much better than their educations. Medicaid is among the anti-poverty programs high on the GOP priorities for absolute cuts and/or reduced annual increases. And let’s not even get into continuing coverage of physical and sexual child abuse, trafficking minors and lifelong handicaps from poor or nonexistent prenatal care or maternal drug and alcohol abuse.
• Only foolish or ignorant reporters credit pious assertions that legislation can prevent disturbed individuals from obtaining guns and killing as many people as they can. There are more than 310 million people in this country. Some are or will become seriously mentally disturbed and obtain one or more of the hundreds of millions of firearms Americans own. A Columbine or Sandy Hook could happen again any day.
• Focusing on the shooting victims rather than shooters might reduce any copycat effect. Stories and photos elevating killers to celebrity have been blamed for further rampages. Even though the killer never was identified, that was the inference drawn from Tylenol poisonings 30 years ago; copycats tried to poison Tylenol capsules. When coverage began to fade, so did copycat crimes.
• NRA leaders realized years ago that traditional (and valuable) Eddie Eagle gun safety comics and courses were insufficient to motivate and keep members and their dues. Fear and anger would be more effective. Real and imagined government controls became NRA’s cause. Few modern American movements have been as durable and effective as the NRA.
• NRA is powerful because we are a democracy. It can mobilize more than 4 million members and fellow travelers as voters, donors and voices in the news media. Elected representatives who want to keep their jobs quite reasonably try to avoid the NRA’s opposition. Gun control advocates evince nothing like this single-minded devotion to their cause.
• In 1994, the Clinton administration won a10-year limit on the sale of assault-style weapons and large capacity magazines for their ammunition. I went to a gun store in Hamilton to cover a rush to beat the ban. Chinese assault-style rifles and curved high-capacity magazines were selling as fast as staff could pry open crates. As I watched, the price rose $10 with each new crate: demand and supply. Men who talked to me said they were buying because of the imminent controls on assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines. A few admitted fear of civil unrest or some undefined federal assault. Most said they wanted a military-style rifle for shooting targets or empty beer cans and this might be their last chance.That 10-year ban died in 2004 when Republicans owned all three branches of federal government and didn’t seek renewal. However, recent killings that required assault-style weapons with large-capacity magazines might prompt reconsideration of the ban. Adam Lanza reportedly carried hundreds of rounds of ammunition in high-capacity magazines. No one knows why he didn’t use them.
• Any gun control measure that’s not DOA will have to respect millions of long guns — rifles and shotguns — used by hunters, farmers and others. That distinction is an important part of this story already handicapped by the paucity of journalists who hunt or otherwise own firearms.
• In addition to an unfamiliarity with firearms, partisan hyperbole also handicaps writing about guns and gun control. It can be hard to find neutral sources who share reporters’ interest in accurate coverage. Stenographic reporting giving “both sides” isn’t good enough; journalists must know enough to challenge obvious partisan misstatements. We are not obligated to report what we know to be untrue or to label it as such.
• Unfamiliarity with gun control cropped up in a recent Enquirer story about a failed armed robbery attempt inside a suburban Sunoco station. Employees with a handgun and a shotgun fatally wounded the would-be bandit. The Enquirer story said it was unclear whether the employees had conceal-carry licenses for those firearms. Unless someone somehow cloaked a shotgun’s 18-28” barrel, no conceal/carry permit is required. Unless the other Sunoco clerk carried the pistol under his clothes, he didn’t need a permit. Wearing it openly or storing it under the counter does not require a conceal/carry permit. So what was the point of that line in the story? Just because a cop might have said it doesn’t mean the reporter had to share it. That’s what I’m talking about.
• Missing in much gun control coverage is Congress’ inability to craft sensible, workable bipartisan gun control specifics that can survive NRA opposition and Supreme Court scrutiny. Firearm confiscation is out of the question. So is universal registration which raises NRA-orchestrated fear of confiscation — by ATF, the UN or some other demon de jour — to hysteria. Moreover, the court affirmed an individual Second Amendment right to own guns in 2010 but it did not rule out federal, state or local regulations governing firearm use.
• Reporters faced with new rage over shootings should remind partisans that we have gun control already. Forty nine states issue conceal/carry permits but specify where those handguns may not be carried. Illinois — State No. 50 — is under court order to replace its ban with a conceal/carry permit system. Many if not most municipalities bar gun owners from firing their weapons within city limits with the exception of self-defense. States commonly limit when hunters can use rifles and/or shotguns and they can require a certain size bullet for large-game hunting. Landowners may bar hunters from their property during state-sanctioned hunting seasons.
There are federal limits on how short a “sawed off” shotgun or rifle barrel may be. There are laws limiting ownership of silencers and fully automatic machine guns and submachine guns. Federally licensed firearms dealers must run background checks on prospective buyers and turn away those who fail or won’t comply. Dealers can deny convicted felons a gun under federal and many state laws. A legal purchaser may not buy a firearm for someone who would fail a federal background check. Mentally-ill customers can be turned away by dealers.
• Few of the roughly 12,000 Americans shot to death annually are killed with shot with shotguns or rifles. They’re shot with pistols. So when gun control is promoted, reporters should press advocates to say what they mean: handguns.
• Before reporters share the lunacy of arming teachers, ask local cops how many rounds typically are fired from their handguns in an armed encounter . . . and how many of those bullets hit their target. Not many. It's very, very difficult for someone trained even at the level of police to accurately fire when adrenaline is pumping. The teacher might end up shooting more students than the intruder. Better to count on the low probability of an armed intrusion. Think about how rare this is. Awful when it happens, but very, very rare, even in communities where other shootings are far more frequent.
CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: firstname.lastname@example.org