When something as tragic and horrible as the recent school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut occurs, our natural response is to try and comprehend it, to try and grasp its magnitude. We want to know what happened, how it happened, and why. Theories and ideas are tossed around, and as more details come to light, we latch on to them and see how they fit into our pre-existing narratives for the event. We want to make sense of the senseless, to find some order in the chaos.
Unfortunately, in that rush to make sense, it’s easy to get things wrong. The very nature of such a chaotic event means that it’ll take time for all of the details to come to light completely, for the noise and commotion to die down enough for there to space and silence to process. But that’s so hard to do in our internet-fueled, 24-hour-news climate. And that became apparent, once again, with Newtown.
As soon as news of the shooting broke, one of the obvious questions asked was “Who could do such a thing?” Within the hour, news outlets announced that Ryan Lanza was the chief suspect, and that there was even a matching Facebook profile. Lanza’s name and photo were posted on numerous sites including Gawker, Fox News, and The Huffington Post, along with links to his Facebook profile. Internet mob justice soon took over: Lanza’s Facebook information was shared across the Internet, people with similar names and usernames were harassed, and even people who were Facebook friends with Lanza were criticized.
And yet, everybody was wrong. The shooter’s name was Adam Lanza; Ryan was his brother, and had nothing to do with his brother’s actions. (The most likely source of confusion was Adam had Ryan’s ID on him when his body was found.)
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Last July, after the theatre shootings in Aurora, Colorado, ABC’s Brian Ross made speculations about the shooter’s identity — and was roundly criticized for doing so. Criticism has been leveled at the news media this time, as well — but I don’t think any of us deny that it’ll happen again. It’s just too easy to engage in such behavior. And yet, we need to hold ourselves — and our news media — to higher standards than that.
As I’ve written before, journalism can be a powerful tool for showing the world as it is, for telling the truth. But the news media’s coverage of awful events like the Newtown shootings often feels more like gossip than anything resembling actual journalism. Gossip, though it seems to be concerned with spreading the truth, actually makes us more cynical about the truth, for it allows us to structure our own preferred narratives regardless of reality. And those narratives encourage us to be arrogant, rebellious, and self-righteous, even as we spread lies about our neighbors. And it’s just as wicked for news outlets to engage in it, as it is for us as individuals.