December 17, 2012
( Jared Wickerham / Getty Images)

NBC News Justice Correspondent Pete Williams was furiously covering the Newtown tragedy on Friday afternoon. Even so, he and his colleagues were among the “last” to report the bad information that Ryan Lanza was the author of the Sandy Hook Elementary School rampage, says Williams. As we now know, arriving late to that “scoop” qualifies as something of a distinction. It was Adam Lanza, not brother Ryan, who did the killings.

NBC News’s contention unraveled pretty fast. “Quickly after [reporting it], we realized it was wrong,” said Williams to the Erik Wemple Blog.

The Ryan Lanza thing came after something of a frenzy on the part of Williams. He’d found out that law enforcement officials had circulated a “bulletin” to other such agencies fingering Ryan Lanza. That sourcing, however, wasn’t good enough to float the information on NBC’s air, says Williams. So he checked with “several state and federal law enforcement agencies,” he says, complying with a “procedure which we have followed many times in the past with no problem.”

The procedure wasn’t fail-safe. NBC News joined a raft of news outfits, including the Washington Post, that pushed the Ryan Lanza misinformation. “I’m sure that every news organization that printed ‘Ryan Lanza’ regrets it,” says Williams. “I don’t know what to say beyond that. I don’t like to report things that are not accurate.” Law enforcement officials who’d whispered the wrong name, says Williams, “were genuinely concerned about it when they learned” the truth.

Just how the “law enforcement officials” trafficked bogus information isn’t official information just yet. The possibility that law enforcement had difficulty identifying Adam Lanza after he killed himself is just one more of the grisly aspects of this case.

Though he earnestly regrets the mistake, Williams argues that organizations like NBC News were doing their work as reporters. “We’re in the position of trying to get the name as quickly as possible,” says Williams. “Police in Connecticut didn’t put his name out formally until yesterday.”

On this point, the Erik Wemple Blog stopped Williams with a question: What’s the public merit in knowing the name of the shooter on Friday as opposed to Sunday? Williams: “I think you can’t wait. People want to know who did this. That’s an obvious and logical question.” When asked whether NBC News would revisit its sourcing procedures in such situations, Williams says he isn’t sure. A possible solution might be to institute an on-the-record requirement for ID’ing anyone suspected of something as drastic as mass murder.

*Post has been updated to include full-disclosure that the Washington Post was among the outlets to report Ryan Lanza as the gunman.

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