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.