What The Media Got Wrong In The Newtown Story

In the hours following the Newtown, Conn. shooting, several initial media reports provided false information. For example, the gunman's brother was originally identified as the shooter. NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik explains how and why the media falsely reported key details.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Soon after the horrible murders last Friday in Newtown, Connecticut, we had an ID on the shooter, the possibility of a second suspect, and a plausible motive - except all those stories were wrong. Media outlets, including NPR, made mistakes on some or all of those key facts. We now know that Adam Lanza carried out the killings, not his brother Ryan, who was never a suspect, that their mother, Nancy, was shot and killed at her home, not at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, where she did not teach, substitute-teach or volunteer.

So how could news organizations get such key details wrong? NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has been reporting on how and why news organizations made such mistakes. He joins us now from our bureau in New York. And David, always nice to have you on the program.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good to join you, Neal.

CONAN: And let's start with the big one the media got wrong, the identity of the shooter. How and why did so many news organizations report that Ryan Lanza, the brother, was the shooter and not Adam?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, look, this is a case where reporters for a variety of news organizations - led seemingly mostly by some of their brethren in the TV world - were reporting what was genuinely being told to them by law enforcement officials.

On the other hand, I think there was an incredible echo chamber here, as tends to happen when there are very few genuinely authoritative sources, where, you know, reporters, particularly those based in places like Washington and New York, where their expertise are with federal law enforcement agencies, are saying, what do you got? What have you heard? And yes, they too had heard that it was Ryan Lanza, incorrectly, we want to stress, but that Ryan Lanza was somehow the person who was believed to have been the shooter in these terrible, terrible killings.

And people got what they felt was confirmation of other media reports and they went with it. It is an understandable impulse, in the minutes and hours after a terrible event, to try to say definitively what's happened. But as often as not, a lot of the key details get to be wrongly presented on the air and in print.

CONAN: And let's square up. NPR got some of them wrong too.

FOLKENFLIK: That's absolutely the case, also done on the basis of things that have been told to us by law enforcement officials. But I think there are a couple of important, you know, things to think about here, and they come up time and again in stories that are unexpected, particularly that are catastrophic in some way, and that attract an extraordinary amount of public and media attention. And that's a question of not only having sources but being clear with yourself on how authoritative a source is, how close is the source to the original information itself, how convinced are you that that person is hearing something not just fifth, sixth, seventh hand and saying, yeah, I heard that too but I'm telling you that, in good faith, and I am, you know, a responsible federal or state official, and therefore, you know, you're - you tend to give them credence, particularly when the clamor for some sort of concrete tangible information is so great.

CONAN: And so many of the news outlets said afterwards, we went to - we got this information from sources we trusted and our trust was misplaced.

FOLKENFLIK: And they would say the same. But you know, in any incident - and, you know, we can talk a bit about how accelerated it is in this day and age, but in any time, going back to, you know, the Oklahoma City bombing, going back - I looked at tapes of the attempted assassination of President Reagan in 1981, I believe, and you saw the anchor for ABC News, Frank Reynolds, angrily, on the air, on the phone, trying to elicit understanding of what had happened to President Reagan when he was whisked away after being shot.

Jim Brady, after whom the White House briefing room is named currently, who survived that day, was pronounced dead on all three major television networks at the time. So it's not simply about this day and age. It's about the nature of gathering information and the seeming imperative, often self-imposed but then nonetheless desired by the public, to deliver, you know, some sense of what are the facts and what are the narratives that you can stick the facts into.

CONAN: And the most compelling narrative was the one of motive. Why did this happen? And that led to the round-and-about circulation of the story - well, he was angry at his mother, killed her first as she was teaching the kindergarten class that she taught at Sandy Hook Elementary School. All of those facts were wrong.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, to me what was the most sadly compelling statement that I heard at one point was the principal had buzzed him in because she recognized the shooter as a son of one of her colleagues, a teacher at the school. None of those things were true. She didn't - we have no evidence she recognized the shooter. We have no evidence that - in fact, we know that she didn't buzz him in, and...

CONAN: He forced his way in.

FOLKENFLIK: He forced his way in. And she was not a teacher there. So in that single sentence, which seems to suggest action and seems to suggest - takes you to a place where you have sort of a mind's eye vision of what occurred, which gives you some sense of ownership and mastery over this terrible, terrible event, none of that was, in fact, the case. You know, you had people on the air saying, well, we're told that he had Asperger's, and here is how that could have contributed to the constellation of events leading to this.

You know, there is no scientific evidence to indicate or studies that would support the idea that people with Asperger's, which has just been removed from the DSM, you know, would contribute in any way to such a violent act. You know, there's just a series of things that we do based on totally wrong information and tips, and then there's stuff that we do that get out ahead of the facts.

CONAN: You've pointed out that we - before the age of cable TV news - got facts wrong plenty of times before. Yet there is that competition from the cable news channels that are on the - those TVs are on the wall on every newsroom around the country no matter what kind of news outlet you are. There is also competition from social media, from Twitter and Facebook and the feeling that the old fuddy-duddy media doesn't want to be left behind.

FOLKENFLIK: Right. Well, look, you know, when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, as I understand it fisticuffs broke out over wire reporters trying to use the payphone, over who could get their dispatches in most as quickly. But I think it's worth pointing out a couple of signal moments, each of which have accelerated the pace of the news. So the addition of CNN meant that there was 24-hour news.

You didn't have to break into the soap operas or the evening dramas. You were on the air live at all time. And there was a hunger for material to use, and an event like this became, you know, grist for that. In 1996 there were additional cable channels where suddenly CNN had to compete with others that were on its, you know, own wavelength in terms of the need to be on the air as quickly as possible.

Then, you know, in 1996 also, the Web became more of a consumer thing, and suddenly you had websites that had started to develop their own news staffers. And that accelerated things because you could publish, you know, minute by minute, not just hour by hour. Well, suddenly with social media, call it five years ago, whatever point you want take it from, you have Twitter, you have Tumblr, you have Facebook. And people can do things for themselves.

So, for example, I talked the other day with Ben Smith. He's the editor in chief of BuzzFeed, which kind of straddles digital media and reporting, certain kind of old school values, with the social media world. And he said, look, we took CNN's confirmation that Ryan Lanza, the older brother, was the shooter. Wrongly again, we stress. And so we went and we started scraping his Facebook page for images, for postings to see what it was like. Other people posted some of the things that he had said on Twitter and indicated, well, it's a despondent state of mind.

Maybe so, but he didn't happen to be the killer. But instead you're cementing in people's minds, and in the aggregate of all these actions by all these various news outlets, millions of people's minds, for many hours, thought that Ryan Lanza was a mass murderer when he wasn't. Social media advocates will say, well, we're only doing what our audiences are doing for themselves. But certainly we're all responsible for what we do.

And when you lend the imprimatur, as major news outlets did and as social media outlets did, to the idea that the mistaken person is actually the culpable party, I think you're giving a more conventional seal of approval to the information.

CONAN: You left out another significant moment, David. It was the moment when - I'm old enough to remember when the news came over wire machines that chugged and thumped out characters at the remarkable speed of 60 characters a minute and printed out on paper the news as it came in. The wire services were the fastest form of communication of the news in those days, and you had to wait for the story to finish until it was finally printed out. Then the wires went digital, and all of that information from all of the wire services was available instantly and it completely transformed the news business.

FOLKENFLIK: I think that's exactly right. I mean when you're going into binary code that can suddenly show up on our own terminals, not just as presented by people at CBS or in print by The New York Times, it changes the nature of our relationship to the news.

CONAN: Then there are other controversies. Getting it wrong is one thing, but there are other controversies that have not changed over time. And that is the sense of people in a town the size of Newtown - when a story breaks there, you can feel overwhelmed by what seems like an occupying army.

FOLKENFLIK: And that's a completely understandable reaction to it. I think different residents, different survivors of that incident are going to react differently. You know, this is a calamity that has happened to a small community. It is also one that's been wreaked on, you know, Connecticut and on the nation at large. It's clearly something that has commanded the attention of every person up to the president of the United States. And so the idea that we would somehow not pay attention to it, leave it only to the foreign tabloids that think that America is only a violent place, somehow doesn't quite make sense to me. And yet you do have these throngs of reporters, you know, overwhelming the number of residents in certain clusters of interviews by probably a couple dozen to one, that seem to be all - out of all balance. And there has to be some understanding of the human situation that the survivors have gone through and some calibration of what are we focusing on here and are we being constructive or destructive in doing it.

I don't think it's true that the press should simply walk away. I think some of the anger at the press is displaced because of the, you know, more generalized anger and anguish over what actually occurred. But I think it's a very real and valid complaint to say, you know, are we adding something here or are we just trying to put our own brand and imprimatur on an interview you've seen in eight other places.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik about how and why the media got so much wrong in the Newtown, Connecticut horror story last week, last Friday. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get a caller in on this. Karen's on the line from Clinton in Connecticut.

KAREN: Yes, hi. In terms of wrongly reporting information with the brother - regarding the brother - another thing that I did not hear mentioned is that it actually potentially put the brother - the innocent brother in danger because someone who thinks that they're going to be a hero or a do-gooder who could attempt to harm the brother, it can happen by putting wrong information out there.

CONAN: Yeah, some sort of crazy citizen's arrest or something like that. David, she's got a point.

FOLKENFLIK: Oh, I think she's got...

KAREN: Exactly. Arrest is just the least amount; could be worse than arrest.

FOLKENFLIK: Right. Well, you know, look, it is - certainly Ryan Lanza's life has been wrecked by the actions of his brother: killing his mother, killing all those people at the school and killing himself. But that said, you know, there's no reason for Ryan Lanza to have been thought by millions, probably tens of millions of people, for the better part of an entire day to have been a mass murderer, that it's hard to unring that bell even though social media and the digital media allows the corrections to arrive much more quickly than it once might have done.

I think there is something to be said for journalists being careful. I mean, certain things are going to be true regardless of how quickly we race to report it before the official pronouncement. A certain number of people are going to be dead. The body is going to turn - of the killer is going to turn out to have been a specific person. And it seems to me that if we don't have this information authoritatively as journalists, we've got to question, you know, both how we have it exactly sourced and also what value it provides in releasing that information publicly before a public official is putting his or her name to it.

The second thing I would say is that just as consumers of the news, as citizens, it's probably on us to recognize that if we choose to follow these catastrophes that are unfolding in real time as information is unclear, we have to understand that a lot of the narratives that are going to be provided to us, a lot of the explanations and information that's going to be served up on the air and online, is going to turn out not to be true.

And almost overwhelmingly that's going to be - have been presented in good faith, but we're going to have to take more responsibility for ourselves as discerning consumers and say we have bought into this exceptionally accelerated pace of news presentation. We have to acknowledge that comes at a cost of precision.

CONAN: Karen...

KAREN: Exactly. Because what is the priority? Is it to be the first person to report and get the audience, or is it to report accurately?

CONAN: You raised a critical question, Karen, one that the news media has been trying to answer for many years. And David, your point is also buttressed by - you go back to Columbine, not all that long ago. And it was 10 years that the narrative was this was the Trenchcoat Mafia, these were kids retaliating against the jocks who'd bullied them mercilessly. All turned out to be wrong, and we didn't know that for about 10 years.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. I spoke with Dave Cullen, who took a decade trying to wrap his mind around how to approach this and wrote a book about the shootings in Littleton, Colorado, which, you know, sort of presaged the devastation that we all felt at these shootings more recently in Connecticut. And, you know, he said exactly as you said. You know, we all thought these were goths, the uncool kids who were taking out their vengeance, particularly on jocks who had hazed them relentlessly.

And you know, one of the things he pointed out was, look, they had planned to set off bombs all over the school. This was going to be indiscriminate killing. Every element, as you say, of that narrative was wrong. The press had decided within about 72 hours or so that it was satisfied that that was, however, what had occurred, and it kind of held on to that.

And so, you know, we really need to be careful as journalists and citizens, as - to looking carefully about how we know facts, how we know what we know to be true and are being presented as fact, and also what then we do in terms of linking dots to make a greater narrative and story out of that.

CONAN: And is there any way to remind reporters and news organizations and - this is not just young kids. These are graybeards like you and me, David.

(LAUGHTER)

FOLKENFLIK: Salt and pepper, Neal. Salt and pepper.

CONAN: Well, speak for yourself. The - some of the facts that are being reported in this first break in this breaking story are going to be untrue. Be careful.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, you do see that. There are points at which - you saw a number of people on cable news talk saying, you know, this is a fluid story. The facts are moving. And it's really - what they're saying is the information we're presenting you is shifting around. You don't see a lot of people saying we want to correct what we say before. They say, you know, there are new developments. There's new information in. The word new is almost a trigger for revision in this day and age, you know, unless, you know, you have no information having been presented.

What they're really saying is, we're able to sift the wheat from the chaff here. We're able to figure out a little more definitively what's going on. They're using shorthands that mean something to journalists. I'm not sure the public totally understands - and reasonably so - that what they're really saying is we're going to tell you almost a fire hose of information here because we're not able to discern entirely what's real and what's not. There's just so much coming at you. You know, there's so much chatter, we're trying to figure out what the real voice of truth is here.

CONAN: David, thanks very much for your time, as always.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

CONAN: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, with us from our bureau in New York. Tomorrow, a holiday celebration with Ensemble Galilei. Be sure to join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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