Newtown shootings: race to break news first means truth can be lost in chaos | Analysis

Misinformation flew thick and fast as US news organisations scrambled to be first in coverage of the Sandy Hook massacre

One minor inquest, as the immediate horror of the Sandy Hook massacre falls into context, will be for the newspapers, websites and broadcasters who carried the story, moment by moment, as the first news of the killings broke – and got it terribly wrong. If journalism is the first rough draft of history, then this was one of its roughest days.

It wasn't merely confusion over death figures – oscillating upwards to as many as 30, and then wobbling back down again – as the hours passed. It was the bedrock of the tale that news agencies and TV sought to construct. Who was the suspected killer? Why, he was Ryan Lanza from Hoboken, New Jersey – see, here's his picture from his Facebook site! That snapshot flashed around the web and on to TV screens. But no, wait a minute … (according to the Associated Press) a cop with a notebook had got his Lanzas in a twist. The suspected (dead) killer was Ryan's brother, Adam, who wasn't on Facebook at all: obviously a "shy and retiring" lad (because he wasn't on Facebook). And it must be him, because Ryan wasn't dead – but posting messages on his page.

Concurrently AP had the mother in the case being shot at home or in front of the class. "Unnamed law enforcement sources" fed newspapers different stories. Nobody could form any real conclusions about anything – which didn't stop experts of instant psychoanalysis peddling their wares.

American journalism is traditionally hyper-earnest about facts, mistakes, double-sourcing and the whole litany of trust. It doesn't just try its damnedest to get things right; it buys a whole wardrobe of hair shirts when it gets things wrong. So this particular inquest – into truly glaring errors – will be very interesting indeed. There are issues here we've come to recognise in Britain from Dunblane to 7 July 2005. Where there is death and chaos, that chaos infects the borderlines of truth. When not even the police quite knows what's happening, then really nobody knows.

Competition, especially between 24-hour news channels with an audience to win, is ferocious and deluding. Getting there first can mean fame and advertising fortune. Trailing behind is a redundancy notice because ordinary readers, surfers and viewers switch off or over, market forces in action.

But every new disaster in a digital world of technical explosion poses challenges beyond standard issue. If two sources on Twitter are tweeting the same alleged facts, is that enough to report it? If automatic Facebook feeds are sending millions of followers defective information in an alleged tide of certainty, when do upright newspapers (say the New York Times) draw back? The NYT got Sandy Hook wrong in vital respects, too.

Everyone with any common sense recognises that slaughter scenes, just like war scenes, are pictures from the edge, that panic and confusion can make them fallible. But how does mainstream journalism relax its rules in a Twitter and Facebook world? Does it hold back and let the bloggers and tweeters take over? And next time around, will that reticence bring added credit – or will the shocked millions opt for Fox News instead? Those same millions have seen similar scenes from Syria or Egypt, recycled without warning comment. They're conditioned to buy the first rough drafts.

Lord Justice Leveson, hymning code commitments to factual reporting and accuracy, is very keen to put social media in a non-regulated basket. But Newtown raises a problem the law and lawyers can't address. If I'm a Sandy Hook parent or relative desperate to know what's happened, do I really want to wait for a conclusive version of the truth? Or does desperation mean that almost anything goes?


Peter Preston

The GuardianTramp

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