There was something reassuring about the wave of public sorrow about the Newtown, Conn., massacre. After Tucson, Ariz., after Aurora, Colo., after the mass shootings in a dozen other places that you or I couldn’t name — events that were shrugged off within days — I was no longer convinced of the public’s capacity to respond to such horror in the right way: with outrage, with regret, with something close to determination.
Apparently, murdering a score of children and the women who were trying to protect them hits primordial nerves. That it happened at all suggests an abysmal failure to carry out the very most basic responsibility of any society — to keep its people safe, especially the most cherished and most vulnerable of them.
So it’s no surprise that the Dec. 14 slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School summoned a crisis-level response from the institution that is society’s trip wire and its intelligence service, the news media. Hundreds of reporters, anchors, technicians, support crews flooded the small Connecticut town as the story swelled and engulfed the country’s news agenda.
And how did they do? How have the news media, bristling with cutting-edge technologies and bolstered by networks of hunters and gatherers prowling the social media, handled this harrowing story?
The jury is out.
The first thing that was apparent in the coverage was its haste — and its heedlessness. Within hours, the killer was misidentified, and the name and photo of his innocent brother streaked through the Internet. The killer’s connection with the school — hence, his presumed motive — was misreported. His slain mother’s connection with the school was wrongly stated.
Minutes before the shooting started, he supposedly was buzzed through the school’s security doors because he was known to officials there. That, too, was wrong. He was diagnosed, with scant evidence, with Asperger’s syndrome, to the dismay of parents of children with that condition.
Of course, there’s nothing surprising about getting critical facts wrong in the early stages of breaking stories. But it’s worth asking whether such errors have become more, rather than less, tolerable among news people, as the velocity of reporting rises — and why it is that no thought is given to the harm that false information can do.
Would the public have been ill-served if the name of the killer — who posed no further danger, since he was already dead — had been withheld until it was confirmed? And was it necessary to float entirely speculative reconstructions of the event, complete with causes and motives, even when they might wrongly incriminate such irrelevancies as home-schooling and autism — and might leave millions of people with wholly mistaken understandings of the tragedy?
The upshot: As archaic as this might sound, maybe when there’s no news to report — news meaning verified facts — the news media should say nothing.
But in a larger sense, the quality of the media coverage of the tragedy will be determined only now, in the aftermath, in the search to discover why it happened and what should happen next.
The initial look into causes focused on weaponry, which was inevitable and appropriate. Murdering 26 people so quickly, many of them shot numerous times, requires gruesome proficiency and sophisticated firepower. So it’s right to ask what sane public purpose is served by keeping such armaments so abundant that a disturbed, suicidal, possibly psychotic young man could get his hands on them to kill so many.
But zeroing in on the gunmakers and their lobby, and on the maladroit comments of the National Rifle Association’s hapless president Wayne LaPierre, felt to me like a reflexive reach for a familiar foil. Sure, reducing the lethality of off-the-shelf firearms is a fine idea, but the proposed restrictions are trivial: It’s hard to imagine that adding a few moments to the reload process, or forcing the killer to use a 9 mm pistol instead of a .223-calibre rifle, would have saved lives at Sandy Hook.
But the massacre was the product not just of free-for-all gun markets, but of multiple social failures, and the media need now to inquire aggressively into the full range of those breakdowns as well. It’s encouraging to see attention begin to turn to the erosion of mental health services, which have left desperate parents, faced with disquieting evidence of dysfunction among their adolescent children, with few sources of help.
And, as I suggested when 70 people were shot (12 fatally) this summer in a Colorado movie house, it’s high time to challenge Hollywood’s two-fisted worship of gun violence as a cultural norm, the cinematic fast-track to mastery and justice.
The media’s ultimate success in responding to Newtown hinges on a willingness to confront those and still other failures that had contributory roles. The stories won’t be quick and won’t be easy, but they need to be told.
Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University. He wrote this column for The Miami Herald. Readers can reach him at www.edwardwasserman.com.