Reaction to Newtown - The Media Pt. 1

Friday, I sat like so many of you glued to my television unable to believe what had happened in Newtown, CT. The emotions ranged from full of anger to devoid of hope. How could anybody possibly execute 20 innocent children and six others who have dedicated their lives to raising our next generation, all after shooting his own mother? Trying to answer that is an impossible task as no one in their right mind can fathom doing it. Yet, experts will try and understand, as they should to try and prevent something like this from happening in the future.

This week on the blog, I will explore some of the other questions being asked and some of the issues raised by last week's shooting and other recent events. There are many media questions which I want to explore for the obvious reason of being in the media as well as some political issues that need to be discussed. All that follows will be simply my opinions mixed with whatever facts and other opinions I choose to include, all of which will be attributed to their original source. I'm not the first one to write on any of these topics, so if I accidentally step on someone's toes without attributing them, it was just that - an accident.

The first of these posts will be on the media, the role it played and continues to play in Newtown and the mistakes made in covering the shooting. This will not include the decision by some to interview children as that's not universally seen as a mistake and will be addressed later this week. Without any further introduction, off we go.

There's a post making the rounds of Morgan Freeman's thoughts on the Newtown shooting where he blames the media for a number of different things. The thoughts are not actually Freeman's but they are the thoughts of many, many people. They are not without consideration and actually make a lot of sense. They are also wrong.

The people who think this way accuse the media of focusing too much on the shooter and not enough on the victims in its initial reports. Guilty as charged, but do they realize what "news" is. It's the things people want to know. We knew as soon as we heard "shooting at an elementary" school that this was bad. We soon found out our worst nightmares were true and that children had been killed. The next question everyone had was "who did this?" and that's where the media's focus correctly shifted.

We want to know who. We want to know why. We want to know how. Who was killed at that point mattered to the people of Newtown and their relatives as they wanted to know if their innocent child was okay or not. If someone is in that boat, we don't want them finding out from the news anyway so the media should get credit for not focusing on the identities of the victims until all those people already knew.

The simple fact is this: we, the media, talk about what people want to hear about. Of course, there are exceptions and agendas exist, but in general I think the media does an alright job covering the news. What matters to people? Why are gas prices on the news every night? Because they matter to people. The simplest way to decide if something is news is by asking "who cares" and if the answer isn't "my viewers" than whoever's asking it shouldn't let it make air. Who the shooter was mattered as do all the questions surrounding him.

This brings us to the issue of identifying the shooter and his motives which was botched Friday for a number of hours. It was first reported that Ryan Lanza shot and killed his mother, a teacher at the school after the principal let him him because he recognized him which explain how he got passed the newly implemented security measures so easily. We now know that Adam Lanza killed his mother at their home and that Nancy Lanza's connection to the school is unknown or non-existent. Adam Lanza forced his way in and commenced his mass murder of the innocent.

How could the media get all these details, starting with the very name of the guilty wrong? Every journalism school in the country preaches be right over be first. The outrage over this is real and valid, but the answer is simple: they did everything right.

There's no way in a story like this that a member of the media to the caliber that the people covering this story are, didn't get confirmation of their intel from people they have trusted for years or from multiple sources. When you get information as a member of the media, you don't just run with it. You confirm it. It appears as if Adam Lanza had his brother's ID and that was the cause for confusion. Reporters got the info from law enforcement and then law enforcement realized they had made a mistake. This is why this day will be brought up in journalism classes forever. We need to re-examine what is right.

I'm not big on rules. I'm big on common sense. To have blanket rules for every situation ignores the fact that situations are different. Every story is different. Reporting on whether a player is in or out of a football game should not be treated the same as the name of a mass murderer. They both involve the same process of finding a source, getting information and reporting it but if you say a guy is out and he winds up playing, the most mad person on earth is the guy who had the player on his fantasy team. You can live with that.

I think the rule for a situation like this is to simply use common sense. Adam Lanza's shooting spree ended when he turned the gun on himself. He was not a killer at large. His identity wasn't something that needed to get out as soon as possible for the safety and well-being of anybody. There was no harm in waiting for the official word and letting officials be the ones to announce who had done this.

This situation played itself out sadly a few weeks ago in Kansas City when Jovan Belcher took the life of his girlfriend and then his own. Some outlets went with the name as soon as they knew it while others waited for the police to release it or confirm it. In that situation, the people that released it knew without a doubt that it was Belcher, yet others waited for the police as they weren't sure all the families had been identified yet. I respect both. They all knew. There was no confusion as to the who. That's why there should be no rules. Use common sense. In the case of Adam Lanza, if the police weren't ready to say publicly who it was and perhaps that should have been a sign.

In the end, the public got a look this weekend into a hypothetical newsroom. The amount of information we get covering stories can be overwhelming and it's our job to sort through it and not let out what is false. In that regard, the media failed miserably this weekend. However the thought that anybody did it for ratings is absurd. Yes ratings matter and on a night to night newscast basis some decisions will be made with ratings in mind. However in a situation like this, we all go into journalist mode as if we're all fresh out school with just "journalism" on our minds. The years of being ruined by ratings disappear and the information becomes the most important. You gather information, you assess it and then if deem fit put it on the air.

Unfortunately the information the media got this weekend changed and changed drastically as the investigation unfolded. This begs a question to which I do not know the "right" answer to and don't honestly know which is better. Are we better serving our viewers by telling them what we know as we go considering the 24 hour news cycle in which we live or are we better serving them by waiting until an investigation is complete? The answer likely lies somewhere in the middle. If I was told Nancy Lanza was a teacher at the school, I wouldn't doubt the law enforcement source who told me this. However I'd like to think I'd confirm it as there is an easy to find staff directory on Sandy Hook Elementary's website. A search for Nancy Lanza comes up empty.

There are names in that directory that we do recognize though. Dawn Hochsprung and Vicki Soto jump off the page. Why? The media. The same media that couldn't get the shooter's name right or seemingly any of the details. The same media that many thinks is to blame for this horrific act. In the weeks to come, the media will likely do some of it's finest work, remembering the victims and telling their stories. As much as I hate "the media" all being lumped together, let's hope the media has saved its best for last in covering this horrible tragedy and (to steal a thought from President Obama) produces work worthy of the subjects we are remembering.