December 15, 2012

(Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters)

CNN has immersed itself in the unspeakable mayhem that unfolded Friday in Newtown, Conn. In return, it has received a fair bit of attention for a short interlude of that coverage. Writes Mathew Ingram of GigaOm: “For almost an hour, CNN was reporting [Ryan] Lanza as the suspect …” in the shooting. As everyone now knows, Ryan Lanza was not the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School; it was his brother, Adam Lanza.

The Erik Wemple Blog asked CNN how the confusion emerged. Bridget Leininger, a spokeswoman for the network, responded:

Just want to ask why CNN is blamed for the Ryan-Adam screwup when many outlets reported it as well. We know Fox aired the wrong Facebook photo, but we did not. Our anchors and correspondents have been transparent on air when we have corrected ourselves, and they have addressed the conflicting information from sources on this moving story.

Leininger tells the truth. As Poynter.org has pointed out, various news outlets passed along the mistaken-identity reporting. Turns out that some did so because they were relying on CNN!

BuzzFeed, for instance, directly cited CNN for the scoop that Ryan Lanza was the shooter; it posted the guy’s Facebook page, too. When asked if CNN was the only source for BuzzFeed’s posting on Ryan Lanza, Editor Ben Smith responded, “Yes.”

A staffer at one of the other Ryan-Adam screwuppers, when asked how they’d mangled the identity, noted, “It was CNN.”

Ryan Lanza himself posted a profane rebuff to the network.

Such are the burdens of establishing a worldwide brand in newsbreaking. When CNN reports something during a crisis, people tend to aggregate it. That’s because disasters and tragedies are occasions when the country is trained to click to CNN. Were there less lag time between the floods and the hurricanes and the shootings, CNN right now wouldn’t be welcoming a new boss and watching a New York tabloid push speculation on just how it’ll upend its lineup.

The Lanza problem is not a repeat of Brian Ross’s mistake in July, when the ABC News investigative reporter mis-speculated on air about the identity of the assailant in the  Aurora, Colo., massacre. Ross snatched an Internet profile of a James Holmes who happened to be a different James Holmes from the man by the same name who’s now facing charges in that national tragedy. In Newtown, by significant contrast, CNN jumped on mistaken information provided by authorities.

The media can do many things; one thing they cannot do is on-the-spot fact-checking of the cops.

Leininger notes that CNN discussed the conflicting reports from officials in its 7 p.m. coverage. Notes Smith via e-mail, “I don’t see what CNN did wrong here — law enforcement officials are a legit source on a suspect’s [ID] ….” That said, news outlets with aggressive coverage of Newtown managed to avoid this bit of misinformation.

Journo-shops that seesawed between Ryan and Adam Lanza generally did a nice job of correcting themselves. And as the Huffington Post’s version proves, there was an element of camaraderie in all of it. Bold text inserted below to highlight the comfort of a crowd:

EDITOR’S NOTE: Following hours of uncertainty during which many media outlets reported the shooter’s identity as Ryan Lanza, officials identified the gunman as Adam Lanza. According to WNBC, Adam Lanza was carrying his brother’s identification, which led to the initial misidentification. Adam Lanza’s brother, 24-year-old Ryan Lanza, is being questioned by police in New Jersey.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.