The problem with online news in the wake of Newtown

Faith Merino · December 21, 2012 · Short URL:

As people look for answers online, Web reports speculate to fill the gaps

Today is the one week anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults before taking his own life.  We’re all emotionally drained from the constant 24-hour news reporting on the massacre, and we’re still no closer to understanding the ‘why’ part of the whole story. 

No clear narrative has emerged.  We’ve heard a lot of rumors—classmates said Lanza was “weird” and had been diagnosed with Asperger’s, an "uncle" said that he took antipsychotic drugs, a source said Lanza played violent video games, a “family friend” said his mother was going to commit him to a psychiatric facility and he was angry with her, another “family friend” (maybe the same one?) said that Lanza told his mom he wanted to serve in the armed forces—lots of rumors, lots of speculation, and the one thing all these “maybes” have in common is that we don’t know.

So one clear lesson has emerged from this tragedy this week: a lack of facts leads to speculation, and speculation leads to the circulation of misinformation. 

It’s an interesting problem with the always-on news media of today—online news is so rapid that a story can change seven different ways before it makes it to a print newspaper.  But that’s also a heavy yoke around the neck of online journalists.  Readers expect information immediately, so if there’s simply no facts to report, start speculating. 


It started in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.  First, it was believed to have been committed by two shooters.  Then Adam Lanza’s brother, Ryan Lanza, was believed to be the shooter.  Then it was reported that the shooter’s mother was a teacher at the school—then a staff member—then a former staff member—and then it turned out she had no connection to the school whatsoever. 

And then reports from former classmates who knew Adam Lanza 10 years ago said he was withdrawn and socially awkward.  Did Adam Lanza have a form of high-functioning autism known as Asperger’s?  Can that explain the Sandy Hook shooting?

Short answer: no.  Long answer: we have no idea if Adam Lanza had been diagnosed with any developmental disorder, much less whether it was Asperger’s (and even if it was, children with autism are unable to read social cues; that isn’t the same thing as a total lack of empathy).

But what is the narrative that’s making its way to the general public? 

A quick glance at any Facebook feed will reveal a couple of main story arteries that have been reiterated so many times that they’ve been accepted as fact: that Adam Lanza had Asperger’s, that he was on some kind of medication, and that the mental health system in the U.S. failed to recognize the true depths of his mental illness somehow.  All that—despite the fact that no one has confirmed that Adam Lanza had any disorder or mental illness.

The quest for information has led to an online feeding frenzy.  Take this blog post from political cartoonist Matt Bors: “I am Facebook friends with Ryan Lanza, which became a problem.”  Though he doesn’t know Ryan Lanza personally and is only friends with him via Facebook because Lanza presumably liked his cartoons, Bors was nevertheless hounded for information.  In a classic example of social-media-getting-it-right-while-traditional-media-screws-it-up, while everyone was assuming that Ryan Lanza was the killer and was dead on the scene from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Bors posted a screen capture of a status update from Lanza to show everyone that he wasn’t dead on the scene. 

I found myself inundated with messages, some from journalists seeking confirmation, many from people saying angry and bizarre things to me or about Ryan. One demanded to know how I could be friends with such a monster. Could I help a random internet sleuth create a “psychological profile”? Did I see warning signs in Ryan? Why did I suspiciously post cartoons about mass shootings only days before? That was very tasteless. A text to my phone from an unknown number read “looks like this killer is a fan of yours.” A Twitter user declared me a “snitch” for sharing Ryan’s post. Someone accused me of having something to do with the killings, “which you take delight in,” they wrote, and hoped the FBI would hold me accountable.

The frenzy for information is more than understandable.  How does something like this happen?  It's gotten to the point where the controversy over the news media's mishandling of information regarding autism and violence, the country's mental health system, and violent video games have almost completely eclipsed the real facts, of which there are few.  We know that: 1) Adam Lanza lived with his mother in an affluent Connecticut suburb, 2) His mother owned several semi-automatic, high-capacity guns, and 3) Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six adults with his mother’s assault rifle, to which he had access.  Those are the facts that we have to work with right now.

It’s inevitable that in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, there are going to be some glitches.  A police investigation is complicated enough—factor in 314 million Internet users in the U.S. (or 78% of the U.S. population), and you have yourself a giant, sloppy game of Telephone.

So let’s stick to the facts and start calling out those irresponsible enough to pass off speculation as truth. 


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