How the Press Covered Newtown and How We Must Do Better

A lot has already been written about how the media covered the Newtown shooting. I want to elaborate a bit.

First off, the interviewing of kids was disgraceful. End of story. Under no circumstances should a journalist ever do that again.

Secondly, the press bungled nearly every fact in this case. I know everyone was trying to get the full story right away, but it was a mess. We need better rules for how to cover these type of things: until a police chief announces the facts, do not speculate. In fact, do not even investigate. Who gets the story first in these types of tragedies is entirely meaningless. The point is to get it correct. That means for journalists on Twitter, on TV, in blog posts or in news stories, until there has been a definitive statement, do not report something as fact and stay away from speculating. Period.

Finally, Forbes Joseph Grenny penned an excellent post on how the media covers mass shootings, just before the tragedy in Connecticut. It’s even more important now:

This week, I watched in horror with most of America, as yet another person unleashed a furry of bullets in a busy PortlandOregon, mall killing two and injuring others. But my horror was twofold. The first misery came as I heard the names and numbers of victims and thought about the pain they and their families will endure for the rest of their lives. The second dose came as I held my breath, hoping and praying the media wouldn’t amplify the violence.

But they did.

They did exactly what they needed to do to influence the next perpetrator to lock and load.

  1. They named the shooter.
  2. They described his characteristics.
  3. They detailed the crime.
  4. They numbered the victims.
  5. They ranked him against other “successful” attackers.

Public shootings are a contagion. And the media are consistent accomplices in most every one of them.

Grenny is absolutely right here. Who cares what the shooters name is? Let him die or rot in jail anonymously. His characteristics are slightly more important, since we should have a debate on mental health care in America. But no sane person commits such a malicious act. If the shooter wasn’t diagnosed with a mental health disorder before, it’s not because that disorder wasn’t there. We don’t need to know whether it was diagnosed. He had one and it should spur on a national debate on our mental health care policy without needing to dive into his background.

Detailing the crime is slightly more important so as to know how to prevent these in the future. If people weren’t convinced before this week’s attack that we need an assault weapon ban, they should be now. Nevertheless, we should’ve done this eight years ago when the previous law lapsed. Knowing the details of the crime doesn’t change that.

Numbering the victims is inevitable. Same with ranking them. But I agree with Grenny. There is no reason to do this. We can release names and mourn their losses without creating a ranking and scoreboard for other future attacks to see as a challenge.

I’m still nowhere near over this tragic event. I’m still really angry. We need a debate on gun control, mental health care and community values. We need it now.

In the meantime, we also need to learn how to cover these stories better, because as much as I hope to God there never is another one of these, that’s very unlikely to be the case. It’s about time the media (including me and everyone else tweeting) decides to put moral values above the story. It’s time to do anything in our power to stop these from happening again. If that means that the American public learns fewer details about these horrific events, that’s a small price to pay.


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