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Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Shooting, The Media, and Autism

A previous post noted the many mistakes in media coverage of the Newtown shooting. Almost as soon as news broke of the tragedy in Connecticut, some news organizations began quoting speculation that the killer might have had autism.  

In a string of heated interviews that sought to get both sides of the post-Sandy Hook debates on gun ownership and mental illness, CNN's Piers Morgan booked a guest who suggested autistic people may be more prone to acting out violent fantasies. Asperger's was a central component of 60 Minutes's report on Lanza Sunday night, including a statement from an advocacy group that insisted those with Asperger's are more likely to be victims of violence than proponents of it. Media critics have also singled out Fox News and The New York Times as outlets that have overplayed the connection between Lanza's action and any developmental disorders he may have had. (A high school advisor also said Lanza had a rare condition in which he couldn't feel pain).
In our textbook, we discuss ombudsmen, or  in-house media critics.  Margaret Sullivan is "public editor" at the New York Times and she has questioned her paper's coverage.  In particular, one story had this vague reference:
Several said in separate interviews that it was their understanding that he had a developmental disorder. They said they had been told that the disorder was Asperger’s syndrome, which is considered a high functioning form of autism.
“It’s not like people picked on him for it,” Mr. Baier said. “From what I saw, people just let him be, and that was that.”
Law enforcement officials said Friday that they were closely examining whether Mr. Lanza had such a disorder.
When Sullivan questioned reporter David Halbfinger and Metro editor Carolyn Ryan , they were defensive.
Critics, though, say that if you want to understand how such a statement might be taken, try this hypothetical substitution: “Law enforcement officials said they were closely examining whether Mr. Lanza is gay.” There is, for a reasonable person, the suggestion of cause and effect. It is very unlikely that that sentence would have appeared in The Times without further explanation.
References to Asperger’s have now appeared in several Times articles, all based on anonymous sources or on named sources who were reporting what they had heard from someone else. It has been, in short, repeated conjecture by those who don’t know. [emphasis added] On Monday, The Associated Press reported that a divorce mediator, who was named, was told by the Lanzas that their son had Asperger’s, and The Times began reporting that on The Lede blog. The blog post did a great deal to explain the issue clearly and responsibly.
For discussion of how some activists and writers are trying to correct the record, see The Columbia Journalism Review and Autism Policy and Politics (another blog that I run).