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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Murder and Misinformation

Just as with Hurricane Sandy, initial reporting on the Connecticut massacre was full of mistakes.  NPR reports:
Just before 3 p.m. Friday, for example, Fox News told viewers that "cops" had identified the shooter as a 24-year-old man named Ryan Lanza. Not on the record, they hadn't, and it wasn't Ryan Lanza. CNN went a step further, quoting a federal law enforcement official who told the network's John King that Ryan Lanza was "not a stranger to the school."
There is currently no known evidence linking the actual shooter — Ryan's younger brother Adam — to the school. On MSNBC, reporters told viewers that the shooter's apartment in Hoboken, N.J., was being searched by police (again wrong — it was Ryan's apartment) and that he walked into his mother's kindergarten class and fatally shot her there before murdering her students.
In fact, local police soon enough announced, on the record, that Lanza's mother, Nancy, was killed at her home; school officials said she did not teach kindergarten, nor any grade or course at the school; that she did not work there nor did they have record that she was a volunteer. As a result, the principal did not admit the shooter inside the campus because he was known to her, as was wrongly reported by various outlets. Police later said he had physically forced his way inside.
Another report that Adam Lanza had confronted teachers the day before the shooting proved equally mistaken.
It was journalistic bedlam.
Social media accelerated the spread of misinformation.  Mother Jones reports:
Early reports, citing Connecticut law enforcement sources, identified the shooter as a twentysomething from Newtown named Ryan Lanza. A Facebook profile fitting that description was easily accessible, and social media users—from professional reporters to online onlookers—immediately assumed they had discovered the Facebook profile of the gunman who had perpetrated the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. News outlets including BuzzFeed, Mediaite, Gawker, and Fox News speculated that the account belonged to the shooter. Journalists from Slate, Huffington Post, CNN, and other news organizations tweeted links to the Facebook profile.
But it was the wrong guy. Press reports are now identifying the shooter as Adam Lanza. Ryan Lanza, identified as Adam's brother, has reportedly been questioned by police. According to the Associated Press, "a law enforcement official mistakenly transposed the brothers' first names." The result was that, for a few brief hours in the middle of the day, based on press speculation about the suspect's identity, social media users brought out the digital equivalent of pitchforks and torches, vilifying the alleged shooter's brother and haranguing Ryan Lanzas all across the intertubes.
Political cartoonist Matt Bors, who was Facebook friends with Ryan Lanza but didn't actually know him personally, was inundated with Facebook messages and friend requests as a result. "I was getting messages from people saying, why are you friends with a monster?" Bors says. Looking at Lanza's page, he saw desperate messages posted denying any involvement in the shooting, and posted them to his Twitter feed.
At The Washington Post, Charles Lane says national soul-searching should include reporters:
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.