By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
11:03 PM EST, December 14, 2012
The performance of some of the biggest media outlets in the country Friday would be laughable if the story they were covering wasn't so horrific and tragic: 20 children slaughtered in their classrooms at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
And for several hours, AP and network and cable TV news misidentified the gunman to millions of readers and viewers as Ryan Lanza. They linked to his Facebook page and ran pictures and information from his account on the air and in print.
Except, as hopefully everyone knows by now, it wasn't Ryan Lanza who killed those children. It was his younger brother Adam.
You can get a sense of what it feels like to be the victim of such media ignorance from some of Ryan Lanza's posts on his Facebook page once he was informed by friends on social media that he had been identified as a mass murderer worldwide.
Here are some screenshots of his account posted by friends:
"IT WASN'T ME I WAS AT WORK IT WASN'T ME" Ryan Lanza wrote.
"I'm on the bus home now it wasn't me."
[Expletive] you CNN it wasn't me."
"Everyone shut the [expletive] up it wasn't me."
A friend posted: "How the [expletive] do they jump to such conclusions with zero evidence?"
In this case, it appears some law enforcement officials might have incorrectly identified the gunman as Ryan Lanza. One account says Adam Lanza had Ryan's ID on him when police found his body.
That helps explain how it initially might have happened, but it's not an excuse for so many in the media having it so wrong for so long Friday.
When it takes a distraught young man on a bus posting with a mobile device to his Facebook page to straighten the national media out on a story this huge, it's time for a journalistic gut check.
But, of course, we won't have one of those. We hardly ever do that anymore in the media, do we?
I said this during the summer when ABC's chief investigative reporter Brian Ross incorrectly linked a gunman to the Tea Party based on a journalistic effort that would rate an "F" for a student in his or her first college reporting course. I'm sorry, make that high school reporting course.
I said it again after CNN and Fox News got the Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare wrong -- and Fox refused to take responsibility for its gaffe.
Friday was filled with other media malfeasance after the first hours of the attack.
MSNBC's Alex Wagner, for example, went straight to hot-button, partisan opinion-slinging instead of reporting. Here's part of what she said on-air before anyone had any real facts nailed down:
It is, hopefully, we say this every single time we cover one of these things, a line in the sand. There has got to be some kind of measurable change, some kind of reaction. One would hope that there will be some political capital to reform the way in which we handle gun and gun violence in this country.
That's what MSNBC does: opinionates about matters like "political capital" on the air. What else would you expect of someone like Wagner on such a channel? Responsible journalism? Fact checking? Some original reporting to try and independently confirm what law officials were saying?
Forget it. we don't do that anymore at channels like MSNBC. You have to hire a staff of real reporters for that, and it is not as cost effective as hiring a few showboat hosts who say outrageously partisan stuff on-air.
And what about all those hot-dog reporters on the scene who grabbed any little kid whose parents were foolish enough to let their children be interviewed -- and put words in the kids' mouths in hopes of getting a money quote? Or how about the reporters who tried to invade those kids' private lives via social media?
I admit, like many people, I am depressed by what happened in that school Friday.
But I am also angry that it seems as if we no longer have a press in this country that can step up and cover such stories responsibly.
It seems as if the more our new technology empowers us, the worse our performance gets -- the further we fall from the core values of journalism to inform and clarify. Instead we add to the confusion and cacophony in these deeply troubled times.
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