Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Shooting the messengers

It's never right to get it wrong, and the mainstream media chose speed over accuracy in the Connecticut school tragedy

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After the tragedy, always, come the questions.

What could have been done to prevent it? Who, or what, is to blame? How can such an unspeakable horror be prevented from happening again?

There has been -- and will continue to be, for many weeks and months to come -- a lot of soul searching, hard questions, confrontation and calls for long-overdue action in the United States in the aftermath of the horrific events of Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn.

Gun control, access to mental-health services and the impact of violence-steeped pop-culture influences on impressionable minds have all, necessarily, been topics of thoughtful discussion and, thankfully, only small flare-ups of the usual finger-pointing along party lines that passes for political debate in America these days.

What has been less discussed, in the week or so since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, is the manner in which the tragedy was covered by media, of both the traditional "mainstream" variety and the online social/citizen sort.

As a breaking-news event, the Newtown shootings were a showcase for much of what's wrong with media reporting in the age of Facebook, Twitter and other online methods of information sharing.

In their eagerness and haste to be first -- online, on the air or wherever -- with information about events unfolding in Connecticut, many reputable media organizations sacrificed accuracy for speed, time after time reporting "facts" about the shootings that turned out, often within a scant few minutes, to be completely false.

The name of the shooter was reported incorrectly. Information about the alleged gunman's Facebook account -- entirely inaccurate, because the person named was not the person doing the killing, and was not even that wrongly identified person, but merely someone who happened to have the same name -- was widely distributed. Details that suggested that the assailant's mother, reported to be a teacher at the school, was among the victims inside a classroom, also turned out to be false. And so it went, minute by minute by agonizing minute, on Twitter, on news-organization websites and across the airwaves.

And of course, every incorrect report was furiously tweeted and retweeted, and those brief Twitter bursts of misinformation were recycled back into the mainstream media's coverage of the Connecticut horror. Inaccuracy quickly began to feed on itself.

What was exposed, much more glaringly than it is on a day-to-day basis, was the fundamental disconnect that now exists between the traditional notions of accuracy, fact checking and confirmation from multiple sources, and the new-media-driven demand for more information, faster reporting and being the first to tweet or blog or otherwise deliver the latest breaking tidbit.

Under pressure to match "citizen journalists" and other online information distributors, many of whom are nothing more than anonymous regurgitators of content, traditional news outlets buckled under the competitive pressure and provided a shocked and fearful public with reports that were simply not true.

And that's wrong, and it's unacceptable. Contrary to the suggestion by one online commentator that these bursts of inaccurate information are "simply the way news works now," what media coverage of the tragedy in Connecticut proves is that there's a greater obligation than ever for the much-maligned mainstream media -- which remain the only gatherers and distributors of news information that have the resources, institutional imperative and established standards to allow and, indeed, require them to get things right -- to be accurate first and (pardon the contradiction in terms) immediate second.

It's as simple as this: not being first to report the name of a criminal harms no one; being first to declare an innocent and completely uninvolved party to be a mass murderer can and will ruin lives. And the broader public is in no way served by rapid-fire distribution of falsehoods.

The Twitter world and the Facebook crowd may demand everything right this very minute, but it's the responsibility of responsible media outlets to make them wait. Or, sadly, let them make things up, as they will.

If old-fashioned TV networks and newspapers and radio stations -- MSM, as the online folk would dismissively label them -- really want to provide the value that they're scrambling to convince the public they alone can offer in an ever-more-cluttered media landscape, getting it right needs to be more important than getting it first.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 20, 2012 C14

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