As I have noted in an earlier blog posting, after the news of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings first broke, I was glued to the TV. I needed to know what was happening, especially during those first few days. The urge to find out what was going on was accompanied by a belief I hold firmly: when major tragedies or events occur, you can’t entirely believe the initial reporting on the events. I have found in the past that it simply takes time before we get the real story.
This habit of being skeptical of the early news reporting of an event served me well on Dec. 14 and the days that immediately followed. Think about how wrong the original reporting was.
It was first reported that the shooter’s mother was a teacher in the school and that he had shot her at the school. Then it was reported that the principal had let the gunman in the school. It was reported that his father had been shot at the house. As the truth became more clear, the stories changed. For example, the mother went from being a teacher to a substitute and, of course it finally turned out that she was not at the school. I remember one newscaster on the scene speculating on why young men commit acts like this because he just attended a conference on mental illness. I screamed at the television (literally,because my wife came in to see what I was upset about) that he should not be interjecting his personal thoughts in this manner as it sounded like a news report.
The reporting on what really happened that day in Newtown Connecticut became more accurate over time, but if you had only watched the news the first two days, your perception the tragedy would be very wrong.
The news media of every type – whether print, television, radio, or the reporting that appears on the Internet, plays a vital role in how our democracy works. We depend on it for information as a citizenry to make informed decisions and in this case I believe it failed.
I understand that this incident was very unusual in that it was unfolding before our eyes and the local law enforcement officials were giving limited information. In a way, that was a clue that the speculation that was originally reported was wrong. It is noteworthy that the officials who were closest to the investigation did not verify the initial erroneous reports. In many cases, these “facts” were not attributed to anyone; in other cases, the attribution was decidedly hazy.
What scares me is that since the media felt compelled to report something, they would report anything, even if it could not be verified. What also scares me is that I cannot assume that this is the lone incident. We hope this is a rare occurrence, but it should be a warning to all of us to not to be too quick to believe things, and certainly not to act on early reports, until we are sure of the information.
January brings a New Year and as is the tradition, we all make New Year’s resolutions. While it is not my place to give those in the media advice, I would think a good New Year’s resolution would be for the media to be a bit more responsible in its reporting.
For the rest of us, perhaps we resolve to take early reports of breaking news with a big dose of skepticism.