Reporters, professors, and Lt. Paul Vance gathered at the University of Connecticut last week to discuss the role of accuracy, respect, and social media in the coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
The timing of the panel couldn’t have been more relevant following a week of reporting on the Boston Marathon bombing, which included CNN misreporting that a suspect was in custody April 17 when that was not the case.
In Newtown, where 20 children, and 6 educators were shot by a gunman Dec. 14, there was information being reported by numerous new outlets during the first few hours following the event that turned out to be inaccurate.
“There was a lot of misinformation,” Bill Leukhardt, a Hartford Courant reporter and stepfather of slain Sandy Hook teacher Lauren Rousseau, said. “Adam Lanza was there because he shot his mother who was a teacher, that wasn’t true. There were multiple shooters, maybe a second person with a gun on the scene, that wasn’t true.”
Leukhardt went on to explain the constant pressure faced by news organizations to be first. “Unfortunately there are publications that will publish almost any rumor,” he said.
That includes on their Twitter feeds.
Marie Shanahan, a professor of Online Journalism at UConn, said these news events create a “flood” of social media, which a majority of young people use as their primary news source. She said a lot of people learned of the shooting Dec. 14 through social media and it’s how many learned of the Boston Marathon bombings.
“That’s where you’re getting [news] from,” Shanahan said addressing the estimated 50 students in attendance. “You’re not watching a broadcast news channel, you’re not listening to the radio, you’re not reading the newspaper. You’re getting it from social media.”
The problem with social media is that it spreads fast, according to Shanahan.
“If you put something out there that isn’t correct, or is a half truth, or is a speculation, or something you haven’t quite verified, people will copy it over and over and over again,” she said.
Shanahan later gave the example of news organizations misidentifying Adam Lanza, the Newtown gunman, for his brother Ryan, who was receiving death threats to his Facebook account moments after the news broke and then quickly disseminated through the world of social media.
In the days following the tragedy at Newtown, state Police Lt. Paul Vance warned the public against posting misinformation on social networking sites and threaten prosecution of those who disobey.
Vance told Friday’s panel that he was later accused of infringing on First Amendment rights because of this address, and said if he could have gone back he would have worded it differently.
“In this situation, it was important from the get-go that we establish a good line of communication,” Vance said of the relationship between law enforcement and the media following Newtown to assure that all of the information that was to be reported was accurate.
“We had to control rumors, we had to make sure that some of the press from out-of-state, from different locals, weren’t just throwing things out there,” Vance said.
In the days following the Boston Marathon bombings, Boston authorities used social media to their advantage to help identify suspect brothers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, but later had to deal with the consequences of social media such as fake Twitter accounts under the suspect’s name.
“We use social media in many different ways, and we can use it in good ways. But, we have to think about the principles,” Shanahan said. “Seek truth and report it, minimize harm and be accountable if you make a mistake,” she said.
That last part is not new. It’s part of the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics.