Speed, accuracy, social media, and 'the news'

In the case of Sandy Hook, social media technology compounded the scope — and the whopping number — of reporters' errors in the lemming rush to 'break' a news story


Within hours of the Sandy Hook tragedy, the mainstream press, many reporting from New York or Washington, started down a path of willfully-negligent journalism that included, among other things, wrongly naming Adam Lanza’s brother, Ryan, as a murderer who had strolled into his mother’s kindergarten classroom and killed her, along with an unimaginable number of innocents. His mother did not work at Sandy Hook and was not even a teacher.

The story took flight and parts emerged at AP, CBS, MSNBC, Fox News, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and NPR.

The problem, of course, was that much of the story was wrong. This recklessness will not surprise some, but its sheer breadth has raised an important lesson for law enforcement professionals: never open a social media account, and if you have one, delete it.

Irresponsible Use of Social Media
In the lemming rush to report a news story, certain things will be wrong, and can be corrected easily should they emerge in print with a limited distribution. In the case of Sandy Hook, technology only compounded the scope and the whopping number of media errors. Much of it came as a result of journalists’ irresponsible use of social media.

Reporters often trolled for and used information not only about the innocent victims, but the Lanza family as well. In doing so they perpetuated wrongheaded conclusions and spread unsubstantiated rumors that will prove impossible to retract or correct given the number of times the errors were electronically republished elsewhere.

Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times’ Public Editor maintained that, especially in the era of social media, speed may have overridden accuracy in the reporting cycle.

In response to a question from Ms. Sullivan, the Times’ executive editor, Jill Abramson, denied that this was the case, at least at the New York Times.

“Our approach is always accuracy over speed,” Abramson said.

She acknowledged that mistakes were made, but that they were soon corrected. In other words, she indirectly agreed that reporters got it initially wrong, but that once corrected at the source journalists should be held blameless.

In another example, when CNN mistakenly named Ryan Lanza as the murderer, Ryan reportedly posted an immediate denial (in colorful and unambiguous language) on his Facebook page. Apparently anyone else that was somehow associated as a “friend” became a potential target of verbal retribution or a source for reporters trolling the medium for a story.

Nadine Shubailat, an editorial producer for ABC News, apparently contacted an acquaintance of one of the parents of a possible Sandy Hook victim in an effort to develop a source. She reportedly received a curt reply, not unlike the one left by Ryan Lanza.

Ironically, Ms. Shubailat had to close her email and social media accounts because of the backlash

The Mistakes Continued
Even after the initial reporting debacle became obvious, mistakes continued.

Ryan Lanza reportedly gave an online interview to a reporter from the New York Post, which was likely a fabrication.

The reporter may not have manufactured the story, but someone posing as Lanza duped the reporter, who apparently was all too eager for the exclusive.

The New York Post said the story was the “unfortunate result of a poor editorial process” but did not drop the story from their website. Instead, they published an “update” that included the Lanza family’s denial that Ryan had given the interview. The original and likely erroneous story had legs and was republished elsewhere before the “update.”

The correction will never catch up with the original story.

What does all this have to do with law enforcement? Just as law enforcement can use social media for investigations, an officer should expect that the press (or others, such as defense attorneys) will use social media for their own purposes should the officer come under court or public scrutiny.

So-called journalists can easily troll the medium until they find the officer’s most vocal critic, and then publish what they find as if the officer in question always had a “problem” that has gone unaddressed. Once the press has misinterpreted or exaggerated the information (assuming that’s the case), as can be expected, the result will be a negative portrayal of the officer’s credibility that can live forever on the Internet, accessible by everyone.

Social Media for Cops
PoliceOne has published numerous articles that have recommend officers act with circumspection when using social media. However, the mere existence of an officer’s social media site will unnecessarily open up an extensive avenue of negative inquiry.

As Matt Bors, an editorial cartoonist and satirist with a social media presence, wrote soon after the Sandy Hook tragedy, “Social media purports to connect us but it often does the exact opposite. The barrier, the anonymity, the lack of accountability; all encourage the worst in people.”

Remember, someone who has “friended” you may have done so because they dislike you and they have been waiting for their 15 minutes of fame.

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. 

About the author

Retiring after nearly 22 years of active duty in the Army, Lance Eldridge worked as the director of a law enforcement training academy and served as a rural patrol deputy and patrol officer in Colorado. While in the military, he held leadership positions in a variety of organizations and has written extensively about US military strategy, operations, and history. He is a graduate of the US Army's Command and General Staff College and the Norwegian Staff College. He holds a Masters Degree in History and a Masters Degree in Strategic Intelligence. He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in national security strategy, European regional security, US history, and terrorism. He now works in northern Virginia.

Contact Lance Eldridge.

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