How race to report overtook the facts
AS THE horror unfolded in Newtown, Connecticut, last Friday, dozens of news sources reported a striking element of the story: Nancy Lanza, mother of shooter Adam Lanza, was a teacher at the school where her son killed 26 people before killing himself.
This account persisted - in news reporting and in conversation - and seemed to fill in a critical element: a motive.
As it turns out, she was not a teacher. Nor does it appear that Nancy Lanza had been a substitute or a teacher's aide at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The error appears to have originated with a carefully hedged Associated Press report about the shootings just after noon, about three hours after the first reports of shots being fired at the school.
''At least one parent said Lanza's mother was a substitute teacher at the school,'' the wire service said. ''But her name did not appear on a staff list.''
The story began to spread. Just after 2pm, CBS reported that Lanza's mother was a teacher and that many of the victims were her students.
A CNN reporter, Susan Candiotti, identified her as a teacher, but she said she was not certain where Lanza had died. The Washington Post and The New York Times also reported that she was a teacher.
An AP spokesman, Paul Colford, said the news service got bad information from sources ''we had no reason to disbelieve''. He added, ''We were confident in our sources, and our sources were wrong.''
Yet the widespread reporting of the teacher story may have highlighted the media's tendency to fill in blanks on initially confusing and tragic stories, says W. Joseph Campbell, a communications studies professor at American University.
The idea that Nancy Lanza died with her students ''is a narrative that does hang together and explains the story in ways the real story doesn't,'' he said.
''It's hard for us to accept the idea that something so horrible was completely random.''
Mr Campbell documented a similar phenomenon of ''narrative fulfilment'' in news coverage of the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Many accounts described rampant acts of violence and mayhem in New Orleans that turned out to be mostly false. Such stories, he said, were fed by the media's assumption that New Orleans was populated by a lawless underclass given to such behaviour, and foreign press outlets were quick to suggest that the alleged chaos reflected the decline of American power.
While the media has made errors in many other breaking-news situations, the number of errors that grew out of the events in Newtown suggests ''we're dealing with a new normal in terms of what happens in major events,'' said Craig Silverman, who writes Regret the Error, a blog about reporting mistakes.
Constant deadlines, intense competition, reduced staffs and instantaneous transmission via social networks, Silverman said, made it likely that it would happen again. ''We should tell people what we're not ready to report and why. Not everything is rock solid.''
The Washington Post