As Conn. story unfolds, media struggle with facts

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 15, 2012 at 3:49 pm •  Published: December 15, 2012
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NEW YORK (AP) — The scope and senselessness of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting challenged journalists' ability to do much more than lend, or impose, their presence on the scene.

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.

How many people were killed? Which Lanza brother was the shooter: Adam or Ryan? Was their mother, who was among the slain, a teacher at the school?

Like the rest of the news media, television outlets were faced with intense competitive pressures and an audience ravenous for details in an age when the best-available information was seldom as reliable as the networks' high-tech delivery systems.

Here was the normal gestation of an unfolding story. But with wall-to-wall cable coverage and second-by-second Twitter postings, the process of updating and correcting it was visible to every onlooker. And as facts were gathered by authorities, then shared with reporters (often on background), a seemingly higher-than-usual number of points failed to pan out:

— The number of dead was initially reported as anywhere from the high teens to nearly 30. The final count was established Friday afternoon: 20 children and six adults, as well as Lanza's mother and the shooter himself.

— For hours on Friday, the shooter was identified as Ryan Lanza, with his age alternatively reported as 24 or 20. The confusion seemed explainable when a person who had spoken with Ryan Lanza said that 20-year-old Adam Lanza, the shooter who had then killed himself, could have been carrying identification belonging to his 24-year-old sibling.

This case of mistaken identity was painfully reminiscent of the Atlanta Olympics bombing case in 1996, when authorities fingered an innocent man, and the news media ran with it, destroying his life. Such damage was averted in Ryan Lanza's case largely by his public protestations on social media, repeatedly declaring "It wasn't me."

— Initial reports differed as to whether Lanza's mother, Nancy, was shot at the school, where she was said to be a teacher, or at the home she shared with Adam Lanza. By Friday afternoon, it was determined that she had been shot at their home.

Then doubts arose about whether Nancy Lanza had any link to Sandy Hook Elementary. At least one parent said she was a substitute teacher, but by early Saturday, an official said investigators had been unable to establish any connection with the school.

That seemed to make the massacre even more confusing. Early on, the attack was said to have taken place in her own classroom and was interpreted by more than one on-air analyst as possibly a way for Adam Lanza to strike back at children with whom he felt rivalry for his mother's affection.

— At first, authorities said Lanza had used two pistols (a Glock and a Sig Sauer) in the attack and left a .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle in the trunk of a vehicle. But by Saturday afternoon, the latest information was that all the victims had been shot with the rifle at close range.

— There were numerous versions of what Lanza was wearing, including camouflage attire and black paramilitary garb.

With so many unanswered questions, TV correspondents were left to set the scene and to convey the impact in words that continually failed them.

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