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Thirst to be first: Media trip up

Sat., Dec. 15, 2012

Like many fast-moving news events of the past, the mass shooting in Connecticut on Friday proved that speed can be the enemy of accuracy when it comes to reporting.

Many news organizations misreported the identity of the suspect in the elementary school killings, and at least three – Fox News, Huffington Post and Slate – posted the wrong man’s Facebook page.

“News outlets are torn between the pressure to be first and the obligation to be right, and 11 times out of 10, it’s the pressure to be first that prevails,” said Marty Kaplan, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “And yet each subsequent news story that illustrates the danger of doing that fails to stop it, just as each successive shooting fails to raise the issue of gun control to the level of salience it needs to be. I think the sad truth is we will never learn our lesson.”

Many media outlets – including CNN, ABC, NBC, the Los Angeles Times and Fox News – initially cited law enforcement sources as identifying the man responsible for the shootings as Ryan Lanza, 24. The suspect was later identified by authorities as Adam Lanza, 20, Ryan’s younger brother.

News outlets routinely use Facebook, Twitter and other digital sources to speed their research, particularly on breaking news stories in which the background of key figures is little-known. The Internet has often provided clues that would have taken much longer to develop through more traditional techniques.

But USC’s Kaplan said the public and journalists should also pay attention to the cautionary evidence provided by the school shooting.

“When anyone posts stuff on social media, it’s an invitation to have it circulated in ways that are more rapid and less careful than even the stuff you see on cable news, which itself is not of the highest standard when it comes to confirming information,” he said.

To rely on social media as a journalistic tool, without ironclad corroboration that the posts are tied to the individuals involved in a case, Kaplan said, “is to play with fire.”

“And it’s dangerous to the people whose lives get drawn into this,” he added, “and damaging to the public, which gets a kind of whiplash as it tries to figure out what is really going on.”


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