Coverage Rapid, And Often Wrong, In Tragedy's Early Hours Much of what Americans learned from the news media Friday about the events in Newtown was wrong. Journalists know early accounts of crisis events are often misleading and incomplete, but often are compelled to pursue them without waiting for authoritative confirmation.
NPR logo

Coverage Rapid, And Often Wrong, In Tragedy's Early Hours

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Coverage Rapid, And Often Wrong, In Tragedy's Early Hours

Coverage Rapid, And Often Wrong, In Tragedy's Early Hours

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


And if you've been following the news from Newtown, you may have noticed that much of the information reported in the hours after Friday's tragedy turned out not to be true.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik suggests there's a certain inevitability about that in the current media environment.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Everybody got so much so wrong, that it's hard to single anybody out. Among the news outlets that wrongly reported major parts of the journalistic building blocks of who, what, where, when, why and how were CBS, the Associated Press, The New York Times, NPR - a near honor roll of the mainstream media - relying on unnamed federal law enforcement officials, or even more generally, the authorities. Just before 3 pm on Friday, for example, viewers saw reports like this one - in this case, on Fox News.


FOLKENFLIK: No, not Ryan Lanza. Over on CNN...


FOLKENFLIK: Again, not Ryan. And there's no evidence of any link between shooter and school. Over on MSNBC...


FOLKENFLIK: The wrongly identified Ryan Lanza lived in Hoboken. His younger brother Adam - now identified in official statements as the shooter - did not. Their mother did not teach kindergarten at the school, as was reported, nor did she work nor volunteer there, according to school officials. The principal did not recognize and let him into the school. And another report that Adam Lanza had confronted teachers the day before, that was wrong, too. What happened here?

BEN SMITH: What had happened was that a guy was misidentified as a mass murderer. I mean, that's horrendous.

FOLKENFLIK: Ben Smith is editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, a site that straddles old fashioned reporting with social media practices.

SMITH: There were hours of mass confusion in the press, from the authorities and then, naturally, among readers and viewers.

FOLKENFLIK: But the reporters didn't make it up. Law enforcement officials did offer mistaken leads in good faith, yet the information was not confirmed on the record. Smith has worked in the past for conventional newspapers. He says coverage hasn't really changed, but the way reporters construct it and readers and viewers consume it has. Now, he says, it's all playing out in full view and in real time. BuzzFeed relied on the wrong identification of the older brother as the shooter by CNN and others. And BuzzFeed, among other sites, pulled a picture and postings of Ryan Lanza from his Facebook page and slapped them online. Smith says he regrets it deeply, but he also says...

SMITH: There's going to be a massive, fast conversation on social media, and on Twitter in particular, trying to figure out everything they can about anyone whose name has appeared. And the idea that the professionals should make sure that they have nothing to do with that conversation strikes me as a bad idea.

FOLKENFLIK: And yet the wrong guy is thought for some hours to be a killer of children by millions of people before the media darts en masse in an entirely different direction, like a vast school of small fish. It took the writer Dave Cullen a decade to report and write an authoritative account of the 1999 shootings in at Columbine High School in Colorado. He says the media had established to its own satisfaction exactly why the teens turned into killers.

DAVE CULLEN: We knew unequivocally that they were kind of loner outcasts, goths from the trenchcoat mafia who had done this as a revenge slaying, primarily against jocks who they were targeting, to pay them back for the relentless bullying they had undergone.

FOLKENFLIK: None of that was true, Cullen says. But he argues it's unfair to expect precision from the press immediately after a crisis starts, as long as it moves with speed to correct itself.

CULLEN: But in the meantime, all sorts of people jump to all sorts of conclusions about what that means about this killer and why he did it. And I thought that was, well, I guess, irresponsible.

FOLKENFLIK: In catastrophes and crises, the press is writing in pencil and erasing it and trying again. In stories like these, the first draft of history isn't even a draft. It's usually just raw notes, waiting for rewrite. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.