In the Newtown massacre, as in all such tragic events in a free and open society, both the news and social media went all-out to provide the fullest coverage of what happened and why. The latter is not yet fully known. In too many instances, though, the legitimate quest for the truth was accompanied by abuse.
The hordes of print, radio and television reporters who descended on the grieving suburban Connecticut town generally pursued their grim business with due respect for the shattered sensitivities of the families and friends most immediately involved, the ancillary victims of the semi-automatic weapon attack.
In providing early details of the carnage, however, the state police spokesman reported that local citizens were being contacted by nameless social-media practitioners spreading misinformation. He also spoke of a hoax in which a caller posed as the shooter, although police had already reported that the assailant had killed himself in the school after his rampage.
Today's social media, in which anybody can "join the conversation" on the Internet, seems at times like the newest plaything, and indeed it often is. Also, hand-held computer toys and games flood the market, often replete with violent themes carried out with semi-automatic weapons of all sorts imaginable.
There was a time most news and information ran a carefully monitored gantlet of fact-checking and fact-verifying editors in newspaper, radio and television newsrooms. Now the flow of verified information has increasingly been crowded out by freewheeling social-media kibitzers offering a mix of unfiltered rumor and fiction, subject only to their own questionable sense of responsibility.
In that earlier world of communication called journalism, such sins as plagiarism or lies masquerading as fact had to survive an editor's scrutiny, and if discovered they guaranteed firing in disgrace. Occasionally, hoaxes were successfully committed, but the writer's own conscience or the eagle eye of a green-eyeshade copyeditor provided the reader some promise of protection.
This is not to say that social media are solely at fault for the disintegration of editorial standards. The Newtown tragedy offered ample examples of newsroom error, most glaringly in the early misidentification of the real shooter's older brother as the perpetrator, and in the report that the killer's mother was a teacher at the Sandy Hook school, which she was not.
These and other earlier reporting errors in similar episodes were often based on false information provided by sources before the truth was chased down. Cub reporters are taught early that information is only as reliable as its source, and that rumor is only rumor, not to be passed on until established as true. The old newsroom axiom -- if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out -- still needs to apply.
Much of social media certainly does heed the rule, but much of it also is akin to chatting across the back fence, with the added convenience of anonymity for the unseen gossip-monger. To the unguarded or gullible reader, it all too often is taken as "news" that can be banked on.
In the Newtown massacre of 20 little children and six caring adults, the details were horrible enough. They did not warrant being further polluted by misinformation, bad reporting and cruel hoaxes played on the bereaved, whether by "professional" journalists or social-media dabblers.
In the wake of the massacre, some Newtown residents posted "No Media" signs to relieve them of the harassment. It was a plea for more sensitivity, but it should also be taken as a reminder to news and social-media messengers of their obligation to guard the truth as well, in keeping a deeply concerned public properly informed.
Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.