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Tragedy brings out best, worst of media

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
December 17, 2012 -- Updated 1049 GMT (1849 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howard Kurtz says media rightly rushed to report the story of the vast tragedy in Newtown
  • He says the wrong man was identified as the shooter, and other mistakes were made
  • Kurtz: Story deserves intense reportage, but did media go too far with branding?
  • He says gun control flares up as a topic after these events, but media rarely pushes the issue

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- A sudden tragedy brings out the best in the media: journalists racing to the scene, ferreting out the details, leading the nation through its grief.

It also brings out the worst.

In the fragmentary accounts that followed Friday's horrifying massacre at a Connecticut school, some news organizations, following in the tracks of social media, managed to identify the wrong man as the shooter.

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

And then television provided a platform for the instantaneous finger-pointing and point-scoring that all too often follows such shootings.

I am conflicted when I watch the instant network specials, led by top anchors and featuring theme music and fancy logos, as I did after Columbine, after Virginia Tech, after Tucson, after Aurora. Of course they want to devote time and resources to a major national story. But it also feels at times like a branding exercise, an effort to grab ratings share after a heartbreaking event.

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I am conflicted as well at watching some journalists interview children who saw the carnage. I understand their value as eyewitnesses, but these are young kids who had just been through a terrible trauma. To me, at least, it feels exploitative. Some organizations, including CNN, require the parents' permission, but it is not clear that all outlets followed such a policy in the scramble that followed the shootings.

I was not conflicted at all when I read that a Hartford Courant reporter called the shooter's grandmother in Florida. "I just don't know, and I can't make a comment right now," Dorothy Hanson, 78, said in a shaky voice as she started to cry. I fail to see what that added to our understanding of the tragedy.

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The worst offense, though, was the headlong rush to identify the shooter as Ryan Lanza, 24, and blast his Facebook profile picture around cyberspace. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, CBS, Slate, the Huffington Post and others named Ryan Lanza as the suspect, some of them based on guidance from law enforcement sources. In this wired age, his name was bandied about on Twitter and in other social media forums.

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The news outlets had to correct their reports when it turned out that the shooter was 20-year-old Adam Lanza, his brother, who first killed their mother. But they had suggested that an innocent man was responsible for murdering 27 people, including 20 children. What's more, most reports erroneously said Lanza's mother taught at the Newtown elementary school (a mistake I initially repeated as well).

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Blogger Jeff Jarvis, who teaches journalism at the City University of New York, expressed regret for retweeting information about Ryan Lanza, although Jarvis did not use his name: "I did not say this was the 'alleged' or 'reputed' account of the person named as the killer. These are basic, basic journalistic skills drilled until they are reflexes and I would use them in any story for print. I didn't use them online." Not everyone was as candid in confessing their mistakes.

The rush to judgment is hardly an isolated incident. After an Arizona gunman last year killed six people and wounded Gabby Giffords, some news organizations erroneously reported that the congresswoman was dead.

After the Aurora shooting this past summer in a theater showing a Batman movie, ABC's Brian Ross told viewers the suspect was linked to the Colorado tea party before apologizing for reporting on someone with the same name.

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After Friday's violence, there was an instinct by some in the media to pound away at their favorite positions. Mike Huckabee said on Fox News: "We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we've systematically removed God from our schools." I respect the former Arkansas governor, but Friday did not seem like the time for such a statement.

At the same time, Rush Limbaugh ripped MSNBC's Alex Wagner and CNN's Piers Morgan for saying the massacre pointed up the need for stricter gun control.

"You've got a horrible event here, and they're already looking to politicize it. ... These people look at stuff like this as an opportunity to advance their agenda or blame conservatives." (The three guns, including an assault rifle, used by Adam Lanza were legally registered to his mother.)

All this is reminiscent of what happened to NBC's Bob Costas when he used a halftime commentary to question the gun culture in this country after an NFL player was involved in a murder-suicide. Costas was attacked from the right for daring to inject a serious issue into a sporting event.

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Except in the days following a mass shooting, the media seem to shy away from a serious debate over gun control, perhaps fearing that it is too divisive and will alienate a broad swath of readers and viewers. The mainstream press operates under the assumption that Congress will never pass a gun-control measure because of the NRA's clout and therefore the matter isn't much worth pursuing. The issue was barely mentioned in the presidential campaign, and journalists made no attempt to force it onto the national agenda.

The same thing will happen after Newtown inevitably fades from the newscasts and the front pages, and the gun question disappears until the next big tragedy forces us to revisit it once again.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

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