Tragedy shows sometimes people aren’t protected from the press

The Constitution’s First Amendment protects the freedom of the press. But the reporting errors in the Sandy Hook tragedy show that people aren’t protected from the press, in certain cases.

Image: Voice Of America

There was mass media confusion on Friday about the facts related to the Connecticut shooting that took 26 lives, including those of 20 elementary schoolchildren.

When the story broke, various facts from unnamed “sources” flew onto live television, and quickly, via Twitter and Facebook, onto the Internet. Those included the number of possible victims, key people in the case, and other details from a horrendous crime.

Some initial reports appear to be unfounded. Police investigators have said little about the details of the actual shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, since the crime is part of an active investigation.

On Sunday afternoon, Connecticut State Police publicly confirmed that Adam Lanza, 20, of Newtown, Connecticut, was the person who was the attacker at the school.

Of course, if you followed the Sandy Hook case on television or online, you knew that name on late Friday afternoon, since most television networks named Adam Lanza as the shooter.

But that was only after they named his brother, Ryan Lanza, as the accused killer, even though Ryan Lanza was at work in Manhattan at the time of the shooting, and he was on Facebook denying his involvement in the crime—several hours after he was reportedly dead.

Timeline of reports about suspect’s brother

From all accounts, and from an examination of Twitter search archives, CNN was the first to report Ryan Lanza’s name, shortly after 2 p.m. ET. To its credit, CNN has not edited that reference from its running blog about the story. Its blog was updated about four hours later to indicate that other sources confirmed Ryan’s brother was the suspected killer.

“Three U.S. law enforcement officials say the suspected gunman was Adam Lanza, not his brother Ryan Lanza as officials had previously said. It is not clear what caused the confusion among investigators,” the blog reported.

Once CNN ran with its story, Fox News, NBC News, and CBS News apparently made some phone calls or emails, talked to a similar source, and reported that they had confirmed that Ryan Lanza was the suspect.

And web sites that had found Ryan Lanza’s Facebook profile photo started using it along its reporting.

The story fell apart when Ryan Lanza went on Facebook to say he wasn’t the shooter. A former reporter who knew Lanza contacted him and tipped off a New Jersey newspaper.

Shortly after 3 p.m., the website NJ.com ran a story saying that a Ryan Lanza from Hoboken was on Facebook, saying he was alive and not the shooter. The Patch website in Hoboken ran a similar story.

And then the New York Post ran a story, followed by Fox News, and they reported the correct name about 30 minutes later. CNN’s Piers Morgan tweeted out the correct name around 4:30 p.m.

To be sure, there were other errors in numerous reports about the case, including widespread reports that the boys’ mother was a teacher at Sandy Hook.

But it was the wrong  identification of the suspect’s name, followed by the use of his Facebook photo on TV and the Web, and then the use of subsequent video of Ryan Lanza in precautionary handcuffs, that set off a firestorm of protests on the Internet, with hopes that Ryan Lanza would have some type of legal remedy because of the mistakes.

The reality is that the First Amendment, and the subsequent laws based on it, offer high levels of protection for the press. But citizens don’t enjoy as much protection from the press, based on the burdens of proof in the laws that protect the media.

It’s unknown if Lanza would even pursue a case against the media, given the family tragedy he’s enduring.

For starters, there is the issue of defamation of character. News organizations are protected because in general, because the injured party needs to prove that a reporter knew a statement was false, and the reporter was negligent in gathering the information. And in some cases, the accuser also needs to prove the reporter used it with the intention of malice.

CNN, Fox, NBC, and others apparently talked to a law enforcement official, who requested to not be named as a source, but that person did supply a suspect’s name to reporters, producers, or editors working on the story.

While their news judgment can be questioned, given the brief nature of the story and the existence of a news source, a defamation case would be difficult. That’s why if you Google the words “Ryan Lanza” and “defamation,” you won’t see much discussion on the topic.

But in today’s legal world, everything is open to interpretation.

Richard Jewell, the falsely accused Atlanta 1996 Olympics bombing suspect, was able to sue several major media companies and force them into settlements before his premature death in 2007 at the age of 44. Reportedly, many of the settlement funds Jewell received went to pay legal and tax bills.

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The fog of reporting

Ironically, there was a heated debate on a CNN talk show hosted by Howard Kurtz on Sunday that dealt with the question of why TV networks can’t wait to get the story correct.  Two of Kurtz’ guests were Frank Sesno, the former CNN reporter who is a now an academic at George Washington University, and Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik.

Zurawik had penned a scathing column on Friday about the mass media’s struggle with the facts at Sandy Hook.

“You can get a sense of what it feels like to be the victim of such media ignorance from some of Ryan Lanza’s posts on his Facebook page once he was informed by friends on social media that he had been identified as a mass murderer worldwide,” Zurawik said. “When it takes a distraught young man on a bus posting with a mobile device to his Facebook page to straighten the national media out on a story this huge, it’s time for a journalistic gut check.”

On Sunday, Sesno said the mistakes were part of the “fog of war” and just part of a new age of live journalism.

“It’s what I call the language of live,” Sesno said. “Quite often you are following law enforcement or anybody else down the same dead end path. Incorrect information. That’s why it was so important … when Susan Candiotti was saying, ‘sources are telling us, apparently,’ to build into the language of journalism this language of uncertainty because sometimes things do change.”

“This lack of precision of journalism is wrong,” Zurawik countered.

Another perspective on the situation came on Monday from cartoonist Matt Bors, who is Facebook friends with Ryan Lanza, even though he doesn’t know Lanza.

“I assume he’s like most of my Facebook friends in that he likes to follow my work, which is what my account is for,” Bors said on his website and in an article on Salon.com.

Bors saw one of Lanza’s Facebook posts protesting his innocence, and he put it on his own Twitter and Facebook accounts.

“I found myself inundated with messages, some from journalists seeking confirmation, many from people saying angry and bizarre things to me or about Ryan,” Bors said. He also received threats and an unexpected text message.

“This is not solely a media story about getting things wrong: In the end, social media got to the answer of who Ryan Lanza is much more quickly than a dozen local reporters would have done. But social media also creates a world in which we are watching the investigation — and reporting — unfold in real time,” he said in his blog post.

And that may be enough of a change to re-examine some of the current laws related to the First Amendment, to offer more protection to the people from the media, both in the mainstream media world and the social media world.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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