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Missing the mark: Media mistakes

A tad askew

December 22, 2012
By JACKIE STARK - Journal Staff Writer (jstark@miningjournal.net) , The Mining Journal

Arriving home Dec. 14, I was not expecting to hear the horrifying news my grim-faced husband had for me as I took off my coat and hat.

He told me someone had killed a group of kids at an elementary school in Connecticut, and I immediately - as did millions of other Americans that tragic day - turned to trusted national news organizations for more information. But what their reports appeared to be conjecture rather than facts.

Reading those first few articles about Sandy Hook Elementary School was like watching a game of telephone. Almost everything initially reported by all the major news outlets was completely wrong.

Several organizations confirmed the shooter's name was Ryan Lanza, when the shooter was in fact, Adam Lanza. Those same news outlets plastered Ryan Lanza's Facebook profile photograph all across the Internet, where angry citizens were ready and waiting for someone to hate for the mass murder of so many young children.

The media initially reported Nancy Lanza - Adam's mother - was a teacher at Sandy Hook. Then they said she had been killed at the school, that it was her classroom Adam Lanza entered first, with his handguns and assault rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Then they said she was a teacher's aide. Then, they said she was not an employee of the school, had never been employed there. The media actually had no idea what her occupation was, and began telling us she was killed by Adam in her home before he even went to the school.

This last bit of information caused all sorts of problems with early inaccurate reports that the principal who died in the shooting, Dawn Hochsprung, had let Lanza into the school because she recognized him as the son of one of her teachers. In fact, Hochsprung died trying to keep Lanza from heading further into the building after he shot his way inside.

Journalists are supposed to be held to a higher standard than the rumoring of the public at large - they're supposed to report facts. That means getting information from reliable sources. And if mistakes are made, good journalists own up to them.

But in this world of instant online news and 24-hour news networks, facts often take a backseat to the urge to be first to report something new. And the mistakes that come along with such haphazard journalism are easily "fixed" by simply putting a brand new article on the web and taking the old one down, erasing the very accountability journalists are meant to uphold.

Anonymous sources are supposed to be used sparingly and only under the most severe of conditions. What happened at Sandy Hook would never have been swept under the rug. That horrendous story of tragedy and loss would have been made clear the first time if the journalists covering the shooting had only waited for the police to tell them what had happened. And they would only have had to wait for a few hours at best.

Much of the time, journalists decide to use anonymous sources because the people in a position to speak publicly refuse to do so. This grand, American idea of a free press is dependent on a two-way street. The police need to release information in a timely manner and journalists need to be willing to wait for accurate information from sources they can name, instead of culling together parts of the story from people who "aren't allowed to speak publicly" on the investigation. In the case of Sandy Hook, the police released important information as soon as they could.

I would hope that, no matter what size outlet any journalist is working for, from The New York Times to The Mining Journal, we all feel that same pride in our profession, and we all have that same desire to discover the facts of any given situation and report them with accuracy.

The media lost sight of those goals Dec. 14, and I hope as the coverage on this horrendous act continues to unfold, the national media reports verifiable facts that don't come from "unnamed sources close to the investigation."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Jackie Stark is a Chocolay Township resident and a staff reporter at The Mining Journal. Her column appears bi-weekly. She can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is jstark@miningjournal.net.

 
 

 

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