Friday, December 14, 2012

The news monster

When I worked in the communications department at The Times in the 1990's, the paper printed a story about a man accused of molesting children. The story identified the man, complete with photo. We had the right name, right town, but two men with same name lived within a couple of miles of each other. And we had the wrong man.

Ours was the PR department, accustomed to explaining editorial content to a sometimes outraged group of subscribers. But no one -- not the publisher or editor -- expected us to explain, much less disguise or diminish something inexcusably, flat-out wrong. And so, we fell on the sword, painfully and loudly, publishing prominent retractions in our paper and others. The department head, Laura, made the broadcast media rounds. (She was the bravest woman I've ever known. You have no idea how scornful and gleeful competing media could be when The Times made a mistake of any magnitude, big or small, and this was big).

The story had violated the reputation of an innocent man and violated the public trust. It was a crime against journalism.

Today when all the online news sources dog piled on the tragedy in Connecticut, snarling and fighting over the freshest piece of the slaughter, many identified the wrong man as the mass murderer. Not only did some name the brother of the killer as the killer, some even published the photo of a man with the same name as the brother but unrelated to the killer in any way whatsoever.

Then, and keep in mind some of these are considered "reputable" news outlets, when facts came to light, all they did was update the tail end of their story, blaming their unnamed sources for misinformation. In some cases, the unnamed sources turned out to be Facebook. Or just each other. "We regret the error," they said.

And thank you for holding, your call is very important to us.

Once upon a time, if journalists went so far as to identify a mass murderer based on an unnamed source, and I can't think that would ever have been the case, but for the sake of argument let's play along, they would have been able to swear on their mother's life as to the veracity of this unnamed source. Then and only then would the possibility of printing the story make its way up the chain of command.

I don't know what kind of danger these men, misidentified by so many screaming headlines and photos, now face. I don't know what kind of danger we face now that speculation disguised as information travels around the globe within a matter of seconds. I don't know what kind of danger we face now that journalism is dead.

34 comments:

  1. You know, I truly believe the philosophy now is, "we'll print anything and everything, and eventually we'll get the facts."

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  2. @altadena: isn't that usually the case? the media seems to be on a frenzy-- case in point: the good ol' paparazzi.....the people we rely on on reporting the facts are getting scarier everyday...

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  3. That's so well written, it should be an opinion piece in the Times or the Star-News. Send it to Steve.

    The Daily Mail in the UK seems to completely make up its stories. When a colleague of Richard's was found dead in the house of a friend, an Indian whose photo showed him wearing a turban, they went for it. OF COURSE the weird Indian professor was the murderer. The true facts took far too long, 6 months, to come out (which is what frustrates the media as they have customers that want to know asap), and the Indian friend was just trying to defend himself during a violent attack. They never corrected the story or apologized.

    The ignorant people (angry mob) that believe these reports and seek to harm the innocent persons (brandishing pitchforks and torches) are also to blame.

    Mind you, I heard this morning on ABC that the murderer may have been carrying his brother's ID card.

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  4. Whatever you hear or read about Autism in the coming days please disregard all statements about a lack of empathy. This is simply not true. People on The Autism Spectrum suffer from sensory overload that interferes with their ability to attend to certain social conventions but that doesn't mean they don't care or that they don't have feelings or that they can't remedy the situation. Try spending an entire day enduring nothing horrible lights, the sound of, say, nails scratching on chalkboards, and a horrible smell (your choice) and then ask yourself what it does to your spirit. You'll probably have some problems appearing empathic too.

    What I'm wondering is - when everything is said and done, when all the facts finally come to light - will we find out that Adam Lanza, this evil mad gunman, had been bullied for a good deal of his life? And if so I wonder, where was empathy?

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  5. @Bellis:you are right about the shooter carrying his brothers ID... did u also hear that the guns used were own by his mother? Why would a woman want a glock? Just askin'....

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  6. Re: the ID -- law enforcement did not officially release this information, nor did the news outlets say ID found on the body indicated...etc. They just went right ahead and named the wrong guy; NBC first, then everyone copied. And photos of a completely different, unrelated Ryan were published by Slate, Fox, and Huff Post.

    The list of the sources who named the brother & published his photo is too long to mention.

    And Paula is right -- now they're screaming about the killer being on the Autism Spectrum, which #1, is not proven as yet, and #2, if it turns out to be true, so what?

    Bellis, these sources can get away with all this slander and misinformation because old press laws, pre-internet, protect them. I think the laws need to be changed. There has to be some accountability.

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  7. Talk first - Think later. Until 5:00, I still thought the shooter was the mis-reported brother. KFI told me it was at about noon, and I didn't get to the news again until 5:00. Not that my being misinformed is the end of the world, but appalling nonetheless.

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  8. There are folks associated with Howard Stern who routinely call media outlets during breaking stories posing as someone on the scene or an expert from the state or city involved. They are routinely put on the air, making the point that the media doesn't check at all. Then they blame the crank caller for making light of a serious situation.

    Another point that I believe is the case, is that media coverage is part of the reason many of these mass killings happen. It's a way of ensuring that the killer and his anger will get immediate attention. The media's coverage of these events is part of the reason they happen. The media needs to restrict its coverage. Instead, they expand it with bad or useless information.

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  9. If you've ever been interviewed by the press, you know how little regard they have for truth. It's about having a hook. The best interviewees are the ones that write the story for them. The perfect sound bite. Truth is boring. It doesnt always make the cut.

    I wonder, and you might have a sense about this, if a lot of the current state became par for the course during the OJ trials.

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  10. After a bloody massacre, another massacre takes place. Victims of the secondary massacre, anyone remotely connected to the actual terrorists, are either survivors or pronounced dead on arrival. Irresponsible and sloppy journalism without repercussions.

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  11. I suppose the ability to create news terror is worse now. More speedy tech devices, more outlets & sources of news. All in competition to be the fastest & first with the breaking news.

    And when, or if, they need to correct their information it's not put on the "front page" or as the lead story, as was their original broken news.

    Hope & pray our innocence is never a victim of their guilty irresponsibility.

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  12. You've gotta send this somewhere. This is important, and no one else is saying it.

    (I just heard on tonight's news that the killer's mother was NOT employed by the school and was certainly not a teacher there. How the hell did that rumor get started?)

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  13. P.S. Your examples are chilling.

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  14. Yes, now the same news outlets are publishing stories on how media limelight encourages future mass murders. These articles are side-by-side with the ones titled, "Interview with Bus Driver Who Once Met Adam Lanza."

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  15. Next they'll be saying that the family would appreciate some privacy at this difficult time.

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  16. At the risk of repeating what all of the above are saying, Karin, this is so well said. If you submit it to a newspaper [and you should], how about starting with the New York Times, followed by the LA Times, Washington Post and any other major news source you can think of. I am forwarding it to a friend who knows as much about the publishing business as anyone. I am sending you a professional bio privately.

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  17. In my business, I've been interviewed and misquoted many times. I've seen legitimate, main stream media, including the byGodLATimes (as columnist Al Martinez referred to his home) inaccurately report major stories, sometimes with the effects you describe. While the initial story was front page news, the retraction was usually a very small piece hidden inside.

    These mistakes were unintentional and done with the competitive zeal of trying to scoop the competition. Now that we have 24 hour news, paparazzi, news blogs where readers can say whatever they want hidden behind an anonymous screen name, and regular citizens with cell phone cameras and videos, the competition has gotten much more competitive. Legitimate journalists have been replaced with pretty men and women who can read well but have little experience in actually investigating news. This had resulted in the dumbing down of the news that we now all abhor.

    Bullying in the schools is one of the current crises of the day. If anyone wants to observe bullying behavior by adults, just log on to some of the news blogs where anonymous writers can post whatever they want, often with an air of expertise where none exists, and the rants start. My local news blog - sierrawave.net - is a great example.

    Thanks, Karin for starting this important discussion.

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  18. I had had a really lovely morning, and when my husband came home with the news I was devastated. I would not turn on the tv, or watch random video clips. I saw a link to Obama, and watched the President talk like a parent, then called a friend, the same friend I had been with the day we heard about Columbine.

    Scroll the comments on any of these news sites, and you will see the media does not operate without its blood thirsty audience.

    Great post.

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  19. Rumors are what we have access to so quickly, and so widely spread. Your piece says it well.

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  20. Very well written, Karin, and the others commenting here are right -- this needs to be published in a major news venue.

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  21. Slightly off topic but your comment about the two kinds of articles side-by-side reminded me of the time, during the Patty Hearst kidnapping, that a local news reporter actually said on the air, "Police are asking people not to drive by the Hearst home at 280 West Santa Inez."

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  22. it just gets worse.......too tragic.....stay safe

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  23. My brother in law lived in that town, and hubby still has family one town away. The event is scary, but the spread of misinformation is positively chilling. Equally chilling to me is that this event will be exploited as proof that gun control absolutely must be implemented at once, whereas it appears that the bigger issue is that there was something dreadfully wrong with the shooter, so it was, in fact, a personal problem. And while we shouldn't return to the days when people with mental problems could be locked up endlessly for no reason, there should be some way to better help them to help themselves. And residential treatment (such as that available for the mentally retarded) should be an option.

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  24. Just as an aside, I hope all the bright shy boys who went to school today don't feel they're under a microscope and the target of suspicion. Media keeps pounding away at this description of the shooter. Introversion isn't a character flaw. Some of the world's great thinkers and artists have been shy.

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  25. KB, we've been marketed the idea of a child that can star on any stage. Children are children, let's wake up each day and help them to be nothing more than the very best version of themselves. And let's encourage more kids to carry briefcases or whatever is considered uncool. I can't stand this depiction of childhood as a GAP commercial.

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  26. I'm also really concerned about this whole thing about the "autism spectrum." I know at least three autistic people, probably more (you can't always tell). I grew up with one, he is one of my lifelong dear friends. These people are not to be feared. They're not even weird. They're just themselves, differently than I am myself. And none of the ones I know has a thing in common with the others.

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  27. You are so right. These same thoughts have been swirling in my head,but I could never have said them so perfectly.

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  28. I was devastated also when I saw this scary event on tv... So terrible, so awful...
    Unfortunately the spread of misinformation we see in my country too...

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  29. I heard the news on NPR, which also reported about the mom working at the school. I couldn't bear to dive into the online news sources, but I continued to hear updates on the radio. One station I stumbled across gave a loud, late-breaking, sensational report as if it were celebrity gossip. Appalling. Now that I'm catching up on online news I'm questioning the veracity of some reported "facts."

    You've written an important angle to the story here. I wholeheartedly agree it should be widely distributed.

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  30. Some of the worlds great thinkers & artists have been shy, to say the least! Many others have had to battle their demons, or worse, poverty, on their lonely road to greatness.

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  31. Someone tell Anderson Cooper to stop crying. He's not Walter Conkrite.

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