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Messy media coverage of Connecticut shooting leaves trail of misinformation

A Newtown police officer stands behind a tree with his gun drawn as a Connecticut State Police SWAT team inspects the St. Rose of Lima Catholic church in Newtown, Connecticut December 16, 2012.

LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS

Two days after news outlets mistakenly broadcast wildly incorrect details about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, setting off widespread criticism of the media's rush to report in the age of Twitter and Facebook and sparking a social media witch-hunt of the suspect's brother, a spokesman with the Connecticut State Police on Sunday threatened prosecution of those spreading "misinformation."

"Misinformation is being posted on social media sites," said Lieutenant Paul Vance of the Connecticut State Police, who suggested some people had posed as the alleged shooter on social media.

"It is important to know that we have discussed with federal authorities these issues are crimes, they will be investigated, statewide and federally, and prosecution will take place when people perpetrating this information are identified," he added. The only trustworthy information about the case "is coming from these microphones."

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But a leading expert in the First Amendment, which addresses freedom of speech, suggested a successful prosecution of slipshod news organizations or even deliberate hoaxers would be extremely unlikely.

"If it is just about false information that has no effect on law enforcement, no effect on prosecution, no effect on police practices – merely false information, if not done for fraudulent purposes, is almost certainly protected by the First Amendment," said Frederick Schauer, a professor of law at the University of Virginia.

The police threat came after multiple media outlets were forced to apologize to viewers and readers – and, in the case of some popular blogs, to take the unusual step of deleting stories – after much of the information that emerged Friday afternoon was discounted. Elements of the story that were initially reported inaccurately included the suspect's name, his mother's affiliation with the school, his own affiliation with the school, how he gained entry to the school and the murder of his brother (who is alive and well).

After CNN and Fox, citing a law-enforcement official, mistakenly identified the suspect as Ryan Lanza, others rushed in to fill an information vacuum with a whirlwind of electronic sleuthing, resulting in an avalanche of subsequent errors published on Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other news sites.

Even journalism professors were not immune: on Friday, Jeff Jarvis, a professor at City University of New York, tweeted about a Twitter feed he mistakenly believed belonged to the suspect. Later, when he realized his error, he deleted the tweet. Over the weekend, he explained that modern news consumers need to understand they are now witnesses to the messy process of journalism.

"It's part of news literacy today – to know that any story is a changing and moving object, and that what gets passed around instantly is not necessarily the final fact of it," he said in an interview with the National Public Radio program On the Media.

Editors at the blog Buzzfeed apologized for publishing false information on Friday that they later deleted, but added they were pulled along by the rush of other media: "We … don't think it is reasonable, or wise, to insist that news organizations close their eyes to the mass, global attempt to enlarge on reported information that will happen with or without our participation."

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Still, as reporters sought to confirm their facts over the weekend, Newtown was struggling with a huge number of journalists whose presence rendered their small community unrecognizable.

There are traffic jams and hordes of cameras. Treadwell Park, a placid expanse of soccer and lacrosse fields, is now home to dozens of satellite trucks broadcasting across the nation and the world. At various locations where residents come to seek solace – churches, a school serving as a counselling centre – there are signs exhorting the media to keep back.

On the main road near the school, a Connecticut state trooper delivered a stern warning to a reporter and photographer: "Don't go bothering these people. If I hear you're ringing on doorbells, we're going to have a problem."

Nearby, the tension briefly boiled over. At a memorial near the elementary school on Sunday morning, a photographer approached the group. "Leave us alone!" one woman shouted angrily, her face wet with tears.

But other locals showed appreciation for the strong media presence. Lee Shull, a software worker, expressed worry that the news trucks and klieg lights would leave before reporters would have a chance to experience Newtown's more redeeming qualities.

"They're going to cover the funerals and then leave, and that's all anyone will know about our town," he said. "That's my worry. We have a lot more to offer."

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Law enforcement agencies are taking great lengths to ensure media stay clear of grieving families. Reporters at one makeshift memorial reporters were warned to remain several meters away from mourning residents and stern 'NO MEDIA' line streets closest the school. At Shooters Indoor Pistol Range, where Adam Lanza practiced shooting, the owner patrolled the parking lot in his Mustang Cobra asking journalists to leave.

With files from reporters Joanna Slater and Patrick White in Newtown, Conn.

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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