As details about the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., began to emerge on Friday, Dec. 14, the name Ryan Lanza started circulating on CNN and in other major media outlets as a possible suspect. Ryan, a 26-year-old Hoboken resident who was at work at Ernst & Young in New York City at the time, took to his Facebook account and wrote, “IT WASN’T ME I WAS AT WORK IT WASN’T ME.”
The shooter turned out to be 20-year-old Adam Lanza, Ryan’s younger brother, whom Ryan said he hadn’t been in contact with since 2010. But the mistake was not corrected until the end of that Friday. Meanwhile, reporters converged at Ryan’s apartment building in uptown Hoboken, he was taken away by police when he got home from work, and rumors flew among the crowd that his father had been murdered in Hoboken that day.
Apparently, after the incorrect name was leaked by a law enforcement source that morning, many people found Ryan’s Facebook page, saw that he had lived in Newtown and Hoboken, and assumed he was the gunman.
The details as to how Ryan was initially named are fuzzy, but it’s been reported that Adam may have been carrying his older brother’s identification at the time of the shooting. Lt. Paul Vance, the Connecticut State Police spokesman who handled press inquiries following the shootings, said last week that police are still not sure how Ryan’s name was released.
When the Reporter reached Ryan Lanza by phone last week, he politely declined to comment on the situation.
By the time Adam was officially named the shooter, Ryan’s Facebook photo had been published on television and various websites, but it was also shared on the social networking platform almost 15,000 times, according to conservative news site The Daily Caller.
Vance said that he imagined the effect of being falsely accused of such a crime as “very hurtful.”
“The audience wants information fast versus getting the correct information.” – Barna Donovan, Ph.D.
One thing is clear: As the number of people who get their news from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter grows, so does the power of those sites to dictate what is considered fact, and what isn’t. And the consequence, for the media at least, is an immense pressure to publish information first, even if all the facts have yet to be confirmed. The pressure escalates when social media users or bloggers, asking why mainstream sources haven’t printed the same information they’re getting from unreliable sources, begin to accuse news outlets of cover-ups.
Still, the mainstream media has had a few major blunders in the last few months, including the New York Post’s recent cover photo of two men whom they said were suspected of being the Boston Marathon Bombers. The men were not suspects.
“These have been a bad few months for journalism,” said Scott Pelley, CBS Evening News’ highly-acclaimed anchor, in a speech at Quinnipiac University earlier this month. “We’re getting the big stories wrong, over and over again.”
Pelley himself incorrectly reported on the day of the Newtown shootings that Nancy Lanza, Adam and Ryan’s mother and the massacre’s first victim, was a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary. Many media outlets, as well as blogs and social media sites, reported that information as fact. Lanza was not a teacher at the school.
“Never before in human history has more information been available to more people,” Pelley said. “But at the same time, never before in human history has more bad information been available to more people.”
On the day of the shooting, FBI agents and the Hoboken Police Department descended on Lanza’s Grand Street apartment building. A crowd got bigger and bigger and gossip abounded.
“It was like a big game of telephone,” said Amanda Palasciano, the former Hoboken beat reporter for the Hudson Reporter, who was on the scene for more than five hours that day. “Things kind of just got to the point where the media was all helping each other trying to put things together, but no one really had any idea what was true.”
A police spokesman came outside and talked to the media. Later, a machine was brought in to check for explosives, further fueling speculation about what might be inside Ryan’s apartment. Ryan himself was taken in for questioning.
Palasciano noted that despite confirmations from law enforcement in Connecticut that the shooter was dead inside the school, no one gave the media any indication that ruled out Ryan as having been involved.
“It was botched from the beginning,” Palasciano said. “Maybe there was a Ryan Lanza impersonator, maybe there wasn’t. Maybe he was staying with his brother. There was a dad; there wasn’t. Even when it came out that it wasn’t [Ryan], there was this idea that maybe [Adam] had been staying there.”
Palasciano left the scene without a better idea of the situation than when she’d arrived.
“Even when I left, no one still knew really what to believe,” she said. “I thought it was an anomaly for the media to have screwed up so royally.”
Who’s to blame?
Barna Donovan, Ph.D., the chairman of the communications department at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, said last week that although he teaches his students about the ethics of journalism and the consequences of reporting false facts, he doesn’t fully place the blame of misinformation on reporters.
“The blame for this is spread around. This is not just the fault of the media. The major fault lies with the audiences and their demanding fast information,” he said. “The audience wants information fast versus getting the correct information.”
Donovan explained that in cases of major tragedy, such as the Newtown shootings or the Boston Marathon bombings that took place last month, social media users take to their smartphones in the same manner that journalists take to their notepads – and often with similar objectives.
“People like to be in the know, to be the first one, to spread the information. They want to be the first one to break news,” he said. “It’s, ‘I get the information before the professional guys did.’ ”
Independent news sites and “citizen journalists” often spread conspiracies about why a mainstream media outlet isn’t reporting a certain fact, when that outlet may be taking time to research it.
“You’re fighting the ‘We want the information right now’ audience demand,” said Donovan. “[People] are not necessarily asking for the most accurate update, and this is when mistakes can happen. Everyone’s trying to out-scoop the competition.”
Vance said that Ryan’s case should stand as a cautionary tale for the media.
“It sends a message that if you’re going to rely on social media, you may be taking a risk,” he said.
It’s possible that social media sites are having an adverse effect on the state of American journalism, but, as Pelley noted, it is of the utmost importance to remember that they’re simply not the same thing.
“Twitter and Facebook are not journalism. They are gossip,” said Pelley. “Journalism was invented as an antidote to gossip.”
Staff writer Joseph Passantino contributed to this report.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org