acknowledges trouble with facts in Newtown story

I’m somewhat relieved to see that at least one media outlet – – acknowledges that the media had a hard time with the facts of last week’s Newtown, CT, shooting story.

“Pressed with the awful urgency of the story, television, along with other media, fell prey to reporting “facts” that were often in conflict or wrong,” their story reported two days after the event.

However, I take issue with their assertion that an “audience ravenous for details” was responsible for news outlets “reporting” incomplete, inaccurate and outright incorrect information for days after the event. I believe that the impetus is much more the “intense competitive pressures,” that force them to publish or air more, more, faster, faster.

It seems to me that the media as an industry has moved far away from its traditional charge – to educate and inform, to report the facts and not to become part of the story – and this is not a good thing for anyone. Ratings, advertisers’ priorities and the 24-hour news cycle have become the gods that the media industry worships.

If you’ve read my recent posts here and here where I take exception to the coverage of the Newtown shooting, then you know I’m having a hard time with the media and how it has come to cover crises and major disasters. Just because a TV station can run news 24 hours a day, doesn’t mean there’s enough actual news to fill those minutes. Same goes for the internet.

The Society of Professional Journalists is the national industry association for professional journalists. I recently looked at the code of ethics they suggest for journalists. The preamble says:

“… Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society’s principles and standards of practice.”

The bold treatment in the paragraph above is mine but I believe that many media outlets, including major, nationwide news organizations, failed the ethics test, without going any further than  the preamble.

A look at the section titled “Seek Truth and Report It” says that journalists should:

  • Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
  • Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.

I think most media outlets failed the first bullet. Either they were reporting unreliable or premature information, or they were reporting what other outlets were reporting. This, folks, is very simply called “gossip” where I come from.

As to the second bullet, I wonder if that stretches to calling a woman who’d just been brutally murdered “rigid,” as though that would make a good reason for killing her. I also wonder if it stretches to mental health since conjecture as to whether the gunman was diagnosed with “Asperger’s Syndrome” was explanation for the fact that he committed a brutal crime against children and teachers.

Where the media really fell down, though was in the section of the code of ethics titled Minimize Harm, which says that “ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.”

This section says that journalists should:

  • Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects. In fact, special sensitivity was most certainly not used in the coverage of Newtown.
  • Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief. Again, sensitivity to those affected came behind the “need” to fill airtime and web pages. Shoving a microphone and camera into victims’ and their families faces is now commonplace. 
  • Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy. Apparently, the media’s need for power, influence and attention (read: eyeballs on web pages, TV viewers) now supercedes our rights as citizens. 
  •  Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity. Good taste was most certainly not used in most of the coverage of this event.
  • Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges. We should ask Ryan Lanza whether the media was judicious enough before they named him the suspect. In MSN’s story they purport that, because he was able to counter the charges on Facebook, that damage was averted. I disagree emphatically and completely.

I believe the reporting on this story did a huge disservice to not only the residents, friends and families of Newtown, CT, but to all of us heartbroken and devastated by the mere fact that these acts can happen in the same world we live in.

I think the news media has not done a good job of evolving to deal with a 24/7 world and new baselines must be identified and hewed to.