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Media gets it wrong too often

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"Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it," wrote Jonathan Swift, "so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect."

Surely Ryan Lanza, the brother of Adam Lanza, who committed a massacre on Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn., would agree with Swift. Ryan was miles away, minding his own business, when the media, including The Washington Post, named him as the author of the bloodbath — and for the next few hours he was no longer an anonymous office toiler but a notorious mass murderer.

Yes, the truth finally limped along later. Still, the false accusation compounded Ryan’s agony at learning that his younger brother used his mother’s gun to kill her, 20 children, six additional adults and, finally, himself.

Many say we need a post-Newtown "national conversation" about gun violence. We do.

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 rumours of multiple gunmen.

Something has to be done about this problem, too.

Calling for restraint on the flow of information — even, perhaps, self-restraint — might make me as popular with my media brethren as a gun control advocate in the National Rifle Association.

Like gun enthusiasts, we journalists have our very own section in the Bill of Rights, the first amendment. And, not unlike the second amendment crowd, we tend to view complaints about misuse and abuse of our favourite freedom as a threat to it.

Reporters can also claim, quite legitimately, that we rush to correct our errors, which are often the errors of our sources, passed on by us in good faith. Certainly those defences are available to media that named Ryan Lanza as the Newtown shooter; the story was corrected later, and it did indeed originate with law enforcement. If you can’t trust the cops, who can you trust?

Fair enough. But that just makes me question the judgment of the law enforcement officials who provided Ryan Lanza’s name to reporters so soon after the Newtown crime. What purpose did that serve? There was no manhunt; for all the police knew, the perpetrator was dead.

And by the way, I don’t trust the cops — at least not blindly. In 2006, law enforcement told us that Duke lacrosse players raped an exotic dancer; the accuser had fabricated her story.

In 1989, New York City detectives said a group of black teenagers had confessed to raping and beating "the Central Park Jogger." The kids went to prison, until DNA tests exonerated them and proved another man’s guilt.

Like the freedom to own a gun, the latitude to publish a defendant’s full name, prior to conviction, is less sacrosanct in Europe than in the United States. In 2008, German media initially referred to notorious Austrian child abuser and rapist Josef Fritzl as "Josef F." well after the press in other countries had fully identified him.

Such norms are no more readily imported than European gun laws. I would certainly rather have our near-limitless media freedom, defects and all.

But I don’t think it’s asking too much of the U.S. media, and the law enforcement agencies that feed us information, to learn from recent experience and to act on those lessons. Perhaps the media should not identify alleged shooters absent on-the-record confirmation, as opposed to citing unnamed sources as CNN, for one, did in Newtown.

Just as the revolver has given way to the rapid-fire Glock pistol, modern technology enables the media, our sources and our audience to communicate, accurately and inaccurately, with breathtakingly sudden impact.

Journalism doesn’t need new laws to adapt — just a genuine rededication to the values of accuracy, skepticism and prudence with which we already claim to operate. No more excuses.

Among the reputations we save may be our own.

 

Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.

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