Open Mic

Anatomy of Reporting Mass Murder: Why Were We Told So Much Wrong Information During the Live Reporting Last Friday of the Killings in Newtown, Conn.? Should Reporters Have Done a Better Job?

Chuck Ross Posted December 20, 2012 at 7:44 AM

[Updated 12/20/12 at 10:25 am, PT to correct the number of adults killed in Newtown by Adam Lanza on Dec. 14, 2012, not including his shooting himself.]

Scott Pelley, the anchor and managing editor of the “CBS Evening News,” who is also a correspondent for “60 Minutes,” reported a story on “60 Minutes” last Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, about the killings of 20 children and 6 adults that had happened in Newtown, Conn., about 48 hours earlier. The children had all been killed at an elementary school.

Pelley led off his segment by saying that in first reports from Newtown “we were told that the gunman’s mother was a teacher at the school. That he was allowed in because he was recognized and that he targeted his mother’s classroom with two handguns. Tonight, we know that all of that is wrong.” Pelley could have added that we were also told, initially, the wrong name of the shooter, and that two bodies had been found at the shooter’s home.

Not everyone at the news outlets covering the shootings live made all of these mistakes.

Still, these errors in fact -- and a few others -- did make it out over the airwaves. Was this because reporters were doing their jobs poorly, or was something else going on?

“In the first place, almost all information gathered hurriedly is questionable,” says Richard Wald. “Almost all information passed from one human being to another has errors in it. And the thing that you do most quickly is usually most wrong. “

Wald knows of what he speaks. Wald is a former president of NBC News who then spent 20 years at ABC News. When he left ABC News at the end of 1998 he was senior vice president of editorial quality. He is currently the Fred W. Friendly Professor of Professional Practice in Media and Society at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. We spoke on the phone on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012.

Wald continued to explain what he thinks happened with the initial reporting from Newtown by explaining how reporting on live events has changed over the years.

“Let’s say you covered a breaking news event in 1950 and you worked for a morning newspaper. You would have had all day to gather and check one piece against another, and then write a story at 7 o’clock that night that would appear in the newspaper you worked for the following morning. It would be a story in which most of the mistakes would have been corrected, but it would still have errors in it.”

I also spoke to Marvin Kalb. Kalb reported for CBS News and NBC News for about three decades, and was the moderator for NBC’s “Meet the Press” for three years in the 1980s. Kalb is currently the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice, and Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

He also invoked the past to illustrate how different it was from reporting in the 21st Century. He said that in April 1945, Edward R. Murrow was “one of the reporters who got into Buchenwald. And he saw, for the first time with his own eyes, what had happened at one of these German death camps. What did Murrow do after he had seen this? He did not rush to the CBS radio bureau to report this news. He went back to his hotel room and he sat there for two days, trying to find the words to express that kind of horror. Now, that is no longer acceptable journalism." [You can listen to the radio report Murrow finally did file about Buchenwald if you clike here. Once you click through to the page, click on the words under the photo to hear the report.]

Kalb continued, “The point I am trying to make is that we don’t give our reporters any time to think any longer. The business has become so incredibly competitive. So my own gut feeling is that yes there were some mistakes made in the reporting from Newtown, and a couple of them were inexcusable. Absolutely inexcusable. And the reporters who made them simply did a lousy job. But most of the reporters who were there did a very good job.”

Wald also thinks most reporters usually do a very good job covering breaking news stories. The biggest barrier to getting things right, he says, is likely built into the system: “Today, if you have to gather information in minute one and report it on-air in minute two, the chances are that you are going to make an error. The world is full of errors. The errors are not necessarily the fault of the reporting system. They are the fault of the information-generating system. As for instance, you say to the policeman, did he have any connection to the school? Yes, says, the cop, I’ve heard his mother was a teacher. So you report that his mother was a teacher. It’s just the by-blow of speed, and it’s a by-blow of people saying things they believe to be true, but have not had the opportunity to check out. It happens all the time. There is nothing that takes at least 800 words in the form of reporting that does not have at least one error. The more quickly you do it, the more errors there are. There is probably a good mathematical formula for this -- I just don’t happen to know it.”

I countered that perhaps reporters covering live events, despite the competitive pressures to get information on the air quickly, could take a little more time with their reporting, and not rush to broadcast the first thing a policeman says might have happened.

Wald responded, “But when would you know if it’s true? So don’t go on the air is what you’re saying?”

No, I said, I’m saying slow it down and do some more checking. Then I asked Wald whether he was saying that the parameters of reporting done during live events are less than what we ask reporters to do in checking out stories that are not breaking at the moment.

Wald said, “The parameters during live events are the classic parameters. Those aren’t changed. You report, we publish, and we correct if we need to. It’s just that in reporting a live event those parameters are compressed in time -- they are just squeezed into a shorter time frame.”

I said, “Let’s say the standard for reporting something is that you have to have two sources. But during live reporting a reporter may not do this. He or she may talk to just one cop, who says, ‘I think this is what’s going on.’ “

Wald answered, “Well, maybe the reporter hears it from two cops who’ve both heard the same story. Or let’s say a cop is standing on a street corner and sees someone shoot someone else. He says someone shot someone on the street corner. You gonna ask him for another source? You’re asking a question that’s very nice but it doesn’t have a sensible answer."

Wald continued: “So let’s say you are told by the Secret Service that the president has been shot. You cannot not report it. But you don’t know if he’s been shot fatally or not. You take the word of the Secret Service guy speaking to you. It’s ineluctable that that’s the way it works. That’s the way people get information.”

Indeed, Wald noted that when President Reagan was shot on Monday, March 30, 1981, in front of the Hilton hotel in Washington, D.C., “It was first reported that he was unhurt. That was dead wrong. He had a bullet in him. Later, he was reported to be at death’s door. Also dead wrong. Getting breaking news wrong is not news."

Wald added, “And there’s a further complication: If you withhold the information you do have, people begin to distrust your reporting. It took about a half-hour for the precise information about the shooting of President Reagan to be reported carefully. Suppose that no one had reported anything about Reagan being shot for 30 minutes? Do you think that this country would have said, gee, there’s no conspiracy --the press isn’t hiding anything?”

Wald then reiterated his original point: “The astounding thing about the mass of information reporters get is how accurate so much of it is, not how inaccurate it is.”

Some of what happened in the reportage coming from Newtown is illustrative of Wald’s explanation of how the facts were gathered for reporting. For example, a number of reporters initially got the name of the shooter wrong. At first they said it was Ryan Lanza, when, in actuality, it was his brother, Adam.

Here’s what NBC News’ Miguel Llamos wrote on the NBC News website on Friday, Dec. 14: “The gunman who killed 26 people, 20 of them children, in Newtown, Conn., was 24 year-old Ryan Lanza, and he targeted his mother, a kindergarten teacher who was among the dead, sources told NBC News on Friday.”

Whoever these “sources” were, they were wrong about both the shooter's name and that his mother was a kindergarten teacher.

Later, NBC News took down this story and replaced it with one carrying the byline of Llamos and two of his colleagues. The new story said, “The gunman, identified as Adam Lanza, 20, was found dead at the scene of the slaughter, Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, law enforcement officials said. The body of a woman believed to be his mother was found at their home in Newtown, authorities said.

“Officials initially misidentified the shooter to NBC News as Lanza's brother, Ryan. But a senior official later said that Ryan was nowhere near the shooting, is not believed to be involved, and is cooperating with the investigation.”

One question I have is why, in the initial story, it just says “sources” told NBC News, while in the corrected story it says the sources were “law enforcement officials.” In the interest of transparency, why didn’t NBC News say initially that the identification of Ryan as the shooter came from “law enforcement officials”?

I wanted to ask that of someone at NBC News, but the PR person for NBC News never got back to me for this story, despite my making two requests to talk to someone.

In fact, I would have also liked to discuss this subject with news executives or reporters at ABC News, CBS News, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel , but PR spokespeople for all of these news entities said no one in their organizations was willing to talk about this with me.

That’s too bad. Kalb suggested to me that I had run into a stone wall because “they are all afraid of what you might write about this. They figure it’s going to be negative and of no gain for them to participate in a discussion whose outcome they might not like.”

Too bad their collective skin is so thin. The danger is not in what I might write. The danger is in what they might report.