Journalists and the messy search for truth

In the aftermath of the tragedy in Sandy Hook, CT., we have plenty of evidence that many reports of that day’s events were wrong.

First of all, let me say how proud I am that news organizations — some of them, anyway — will attempt to investigate the hows and whys of the mis-reporting. Let me also note that our collective hand-wringing helps to fuel the commonly held belief that we get “everything” wrong and are not to be trusted.

Sigh. It seems the more transparent we attempt to be, the more fuel it is for those who wish to paint what I might call the traditional media as bias-driven, and blind to any facts that don’t support the bias du jour.

Yet it is mostly in that traditional media — especially in newspapers — that the public corrections are made, and ownership taken. More on this later…

On Friday Dec. 21st, the WNYC media program On the Media carried a thoughtful and thought-provoking segment “How Myths Form After a School Shooting.”

The opening line of the link to the report by Bob Garfield reads “The press has misreported a lot about the Newtown shooting, and if history is any guide, much of that misreporting will inform our memory of the event.”

Two elements can be unpacked from that sentence. First the “misreporting,” and second how our memories of the day’s events solidify before all the facts are known.

Yes. There was misreporting. Was some of that irresponsible? Yes. Um .. maybe? Look at some examples pointed out by The New York Times Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan:

  …on the first day, The Times reported on its Web site that the gunman was Ryan Lanza, attributing that information to other news organizations. It was actually his brother, Adam Lanza. Mistakes don’t get much worse.The next day, in its lead front-page article, The Times got several major facts wrong, stating without attribution that Mr. Lanza was “buzzed in” to the Sandy Hook Elementary  School building by its principal, who “recognized him as the son of a colleague.”
Not so. He forced his way into the school, dressed in combat gear and carrying guns. There is still no confirmation that his mother, Nancy Lanza, ever worked at the school.

There are scores of other examples, but this will surely suffice. The Times, bless ‘em, will be in the forefront of the public mea culpas offered.  Many other news and what I might call near-news organizations are not so forthcoming.

But my point here is not further excoriation, but simply to ask: What do you expect?

In the tumult of a breaking-news nightmare, many things are mis-reported because many things are misunderstood. Many of the sources for these mis-reportings are police officials, who will, also, of course, get many things wrong as they figure out what happened.

Why is that a surprise?

Many folks blame the 24-hour news cycle and the voracious appetite of the web for these errors, the rush to be first since many think that being first IS being credible.

But if you look back, you’ll find that these sorts of errors have plagued the “live” news coverage of many major news events.

Jack Shafer has kindly written up many of the most significant ones in his Reuters column  from 12.17.12: “Newtown teaches us, once again, to discount early reports.”

    It’s inevitable that some first reports will be wrong,” Dan Rather warned viewers on Sept. 11, 2001, as he and his colleagues at CBS covered terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in real time.

Rather was prescient in his prediction, and CBS and others proved his point that day. But Shafer’s important point in resurrecting these examples is to show us that errors in reporting have been with us as long as we’ve had “live” coverage of breaking news. He proves it’s a canard to blame all these problems on the demands of the web. We, as journalists of varied media, are only now being introduced to the nightmares that TV and radio journalists have been living for some 50 years, and more.

If the event is big enough — JFK’s assassination; the attack on President Ronald Reagan;  the Mumbai bombings — we want to know NOW. We turn to any site that can tell us NOW.

And they will all, in varying degrees, be wrong. At first.

I applaud all efforts to get the story right the first time, though I don’t think the “Be first” is a good rule to follow. Conversely, striving to be as “right” as possible can also be putting a huge drag on timeliness of the report, as one of the comments on the Times’ Public Editor’s column noted:  (from Robert Garrett of Napanoch, NY)

    My understanding is that the Times, in reporting details about the shooting, relied on many statements made by police and other investigative officials, albeit anonymously.  Yes, some of those official assertions turned out to be inaccurate. But what was the choice? A story saying “Something terrible happened at a school, but we don’t know for absolutely sure exactly what it was”? Should the Times not report there were dead children all over the place, unless a Times reporter independently witnessed the carnage? It seems to me the Times did a dramatically better job than almost any other news  organization, in impossible circumstances, all while being kept completely away from the scene itself.

Where there has been much less inquiry into is the second half of On the Media’s report that I quoted earlier: “.. if history is any guide, much of that misreporting will inform our memory of the event.”

In a nutshell, what Garfield was getting at is that our knowledge of a significant event is shaped by the immediate coverage of it. We know it intimately for a few days, then other things happen in our lives, or in the news cycle and we move on. Yet the story is still unfolding.

Garfield interviewed Dave Cullen, who spent 10 years researching the Columbine shootings and is the author of a definitive book (Columbine) on the shootings there. Cullen speaks of many misconceptions we hold as the “truth” of that event, which is simply a residue from the reporting of that day.

The work of verification and untangling goes on and on. Often crimes result in trials where much of the information that has been verified is brought to light. But there are these other tragedies, like Sandy Hook and Columbine, where there are no trials to publicize the truths that take days, weeks and years to uncover.

And look at some of the time when we do have a trial — like the OJ Simpson case — which leaves us all wondering what the “other” side saw that “we” didn’t. The not-guilty verdict there made most of the African-American community rejoice. The white community was predominately dunderstruck.

What I’m getting at is that truth is squirrelly. And we need to look a  little more closely at ourselves and our assumptions rather than use the media as a fig leaf for our prejudices. After most significant news events we start off with a shared pile of information, some right and some wrong. Over time, we each start to cherry pick our way through the coverage. Some will be drawn to stories that “prove” some point they want to make: about gun rights or mental health issues. Others will be drawn to the human interest stories that focus on one family’s truth.

In this way, without being criminal or evil, we see the world through well-earned biases. Events unfold against the context supplied by our own predispositions. It’s why it’s important to have a sturdy press (in whatever form its news is delivered) that actively seeks unbiased truths, despite sometimes tripping over facts.