As details of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut unspooled today, there were the typical moments of confusion when trying to assess a situation of this magnitude. This is to be expected as media waited on information to come from this tiny hamlet 65 miles northwest of New York City, a city that had seen only one murder in the last decade.
But even as the mainstream media tried to collect as much information as possible, those same outlets continued a disturbing trend of reporting information without confirmation, creating not only confusion but also reporting that was downright wrong.
Case in point: the identity of the shooter.
CNN was among the first major outlets to cite sources as naming the shooter as Ryan Lanza, 24. As soon as that information was released, it took savvy Internet users just seconds to locate a Facebook profile of a Ryan Lanza who lived in Hoboken and was from Newtown. The link of the profile rocketed across Twitter within seconds and given the name and the fact he was connected to the deaths in both Newtown and Hoboken (more on Honboken in a minute) it was immediately assumed this was the shooter . . . until it wasn't.
Soon after that development, the same people who had shared the profile were backtracking after that Ryan Lanza posted several times about not being the shooter. Mass confusion reigned as to the identity of the shooter. If it wasn't this Ryan Lanza, then which Ryan Lanza was it?
Later in the afternoon, CNN reported that Ryan's younger brother was among the dead in the school while the Associated Press reported he was in police custody. This came shortly after reports that Nancy Lanza was a teacher at the school and also found dead at the school (more on that in a moment) and another family member was found dead in Hoboken (again, more in a minute).
Media outlets were forced to pull back their reports that Ryan was the shooter and as the body count rose, those outlets couldn't make hide nor hair of the shooter's identity. Eventually, authorities stepped up at a press conference and straightened things out: Ryan's younger brother, Adam, was the shooter, and Ryan, who was not involved in the incident, was cooperating with authorities.
As for Hoboken, there were numerous reports of a family killed there that were repeated for hours until that story suddenly disappeared.
As more details came to light, that aspect was dropped from the main coverage with barely a mention. There is an investigation going on in Hoboken connected to the case but it's a search of Ryan Lanza's apartment and there are, as far as reports go tonight, no victims in New Jersey. And as for actual victims, while reports that Adam and Ryan's mother Nancy was a kindergarten teacher at Sandy Hook proved true, the report that her body was inside the school was not. It wasn't until late in the afternoon that her body was discovered at her home, allegedly shot by Adam (at least of this writing) before he proceeded to the school.
And that's not even touching on reports that have to be followed up on regarding an allegedly missing girlfriend of the shooter (whether this meant Ryan or Adam is unclear since it came during that time of confusion over the shooter's identity) as well as the initial reports of multiple shooters at the school.
That the number of dead fluctuated or rumors of a second gunman were circulated is less egregious than some of the other errors. What's most troubling is the way that outlets - particularly CNN - pushed this information, willing to go on the air with information from anonymous, unnamed sources, rather than to sit back and wait.
The idea of being fast and first is an important one to news outlets, while the importance of being right seems to have fallen by the wayside. CNN - and Fox News - proved that earlier this year when they were the first to report on the Supreme Court's ruling on Obamacare - and got it wrong.
The idea of being first and wrong seems increasingly less important to outlets than being second and right.
While old school journalists lament the rise of blogs and the misinformation they allegedly spread, it's the mainstream media making these gross mistakes. These errors become more glaring in the age of social media, an incorrect tweet by a major outlet with tens of thousands of followers taking mere seconds to be spread to ten times that number of Twitter users. It's a game of telephone gone horribly wrong, mangling clarity and facts in the process while Wolf Blitzer's gleeful twinkle relays the information - wrong or right - to an audience of thousands if not millions. This is not a Twitter troll spreading rumors during a hurricane (see: @comfortablysmug drama during superstorm Sandy). This is a major network spreading news without taking time to ask about the accuracy of that information.
I can't help but think of Hurricane Katrina (full disclosure: I was a New Orleans resident at the time) when reports of widespread looting and looters shooting at helicopters spread only to be proven false - though the public perception of an astronomical level of lawlessness remains.
Likewise, one has to wonder about Richard Jewell, the man run through the wringer for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing in a bizarre hero-to-prime-suspect-back-to-hero cycle. Family members say he was never the same once media attention on him turned and he came under scrutiny as a suspect, only to be forgotten upon vindication.
Hell, media being wrong on big stories has been a regular occurrence since "Dewey Defeats Truman."
But in a time when reports spread so fast, when information travels so quickly that it will be seen by thousands within seconds, there is a new responsibility of self-policing these media outlets need to abide by, particularly when the subject calls for it. This isn't misreporting the results of an election - which is bad enough - this is reporting of a tragedy in which nearly two dozen children were viciously killed. The limits are being tested, the line crossed and stomped on, regardless of reputation, pushing these outlets down to the level of those so-detested blogs, leaving readers in the cold, confused and less informed than they've ever been.