A crisis unfolds in a small town. A shooting rampage at an elementary school — children and teachers have been killed — ends with the alleged shooter dead on the scene.
A law enforcement official names the alleged shooter in the Sandy Hook shooting, CNN, followed by others, report it and the Internet gets to work. Reporters at Gawker, Mediaite, and BuzzFeed were among the first to find and publish information from a Facebook account, including photographs, of a man matching several details — name, approximate age, town of birth and town of residence — of the man named by police as the shooter.
Hours later, screenshots from someone who claimed to be Facebook friends with the person show posts on Ryan Lanza’s account: “I’m on the bus home now it wasn’t me” and “IT WASN’T ME I WAS AT WORK IT WASN’T ME.” Another person, Matt Bors, likewise posted screenshots showing more frustration: “Fuck you CNN it wasn’t me” and “Everyone shut the fuck up it wasn’t me.”
Then, the Jersey Journal reports, "[F]ormer Jersey Journal staff writer Brett Wilshe said he has spoken with Ryan Lanza of Hoboken, who told Wilshe the shooter may have had his identification." This makes no sense on a day where few things make sense until the New York Post reports that the "real name" of the alleged gunman was not Ryan Lanza, but rather Adam Lanza, his younger brother.
Friday's massacre was least of all a media story, but as one of the media outlets that — after some hesitation — published Ryan Lanza’s photo, it seemed appropriate to revisit the mistake for our own purposes and for our readers'. We are feeling our way through very new ecosystem, and trying to understand how breaking news ought to work in the era of social. And this is not solely a media story about getting things wrong: In the end, social media got to the answer of who Ryan Lanza is much more quickly than a dozen local reporters would have done. But social media also creates a world in which we are watching the investigation — and reporting — unfold in real time. That’s confusing and messy, and many thousands of people were led to believe that the wrong man was the suspect in a horrific crime.
First, it's important to tease out the difference between old and new errors here. The early stages of both criminal investigations and of major breaking news stories have always been incredibly messy. Those early errors used to be carried away on the broadcast airwaves; they’re now litigated in real time on Twitter.
In a sign of just how confusing the day was, the instant explanations, and media critiques, were full of errors and contradictions.
Major news outlets have reported two different explanations for the confusion. The Associated Press reported that "a law enforcement official mistakenly transposed the brothers’ first names." Many other outlets reported, echoing the comment Ryan reportedly made, that Adam was carrying Ryan’s identification when his body was found.
Jeff Sonderman at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training center and watchdog, wrote a post referencing BuzzFeed, Gawker, Mediaite, and others. The initial headline was, “News orgs circulate Facebook profile of the wrong Ryan Lanza.” Sonderman later had to update the post and the headline, which became, “News orgs circulate Facebook profile, photos of man who wasn’t the shooter.”
Adam Serwer at Mother Jones similarly critiqued media organizations for making what he called "the same exact mistake" as when ABC reporter Brian Ross speculated that a person with the same name as the then-alleged shooter at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, was the alleged gunman.
But this was a different situation, and a different mistake, one whose lessons aren’t as clear. Official sources named a man as the suspect in a mass murder; the press, aided by social media, raced for more information about him. And we and others found him before the police were able to reel in an understandable error made on a horrendous day.
Media did not identify the "wrong Ryan Lanza." BuzzFeed, Gawker and Mediaite correctly reported on the Facebook profile of the person who turned out to be the older brother of the alleged gunman — and they did so when he was the person being identified by law enforcement to CNN as the shooter.
But that is no comfort to Lanza — imagine being blamed for such a crime — and we are sorry we did. We’re a young news organization, hardly in a position to lecture local law enforcement or the great American outlets with decades or more of experience in hard news. Police and editors everywhere — including us — will be thinking hard about how to do better in the future.
We’d also, though, like to avoid the risk of romanticizing the reporting of the past. Massive errors used to be carried away on the broadcast airwaves, but honest errors of early reporting have always been common at moments of crisis. An Army official initially told reporters, for instance, that the Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Hassan, had been killed, an account reported virtually everywhere. Much of the 9/11 conspiracy literature is rooted in contradictions in the chaotic reporting from that day; one former CNN reporter recently told BuzzFeed that he still regrets having told an anchor, shouting into his cellphone from devastated lower Manhattan, that he thought he might have heard a second explosion.
The BuzzFeed reporter who turned up Ryan Lanza’s profile, Ryan Broderick, had noticed key details that matched police accounts: In particular, Facebook check-ins in Newtown and Hoboken. We posted the images after some debate; we are still working through what exactly our internal procedures should be for this sort of identification, a question complicated by the fact that Ryan made a correct identification of the man police had named. We also don’t think it is reasonable, or wise, to insist that news organizations close their eyes to the mass, global attempt to enlarge on reported information that will happen with or without our participation. But, in what was probably our biggest mistake, we now wish we had sent a reporter to Newtown instantly, which might have allowed us to close the loop between our online reporting and the original police sources.
We will also strive to do better at something else: Being utterly transparent about how the story is changing, where information is coming from, and how and why we update, change, or — as in this case — ultimately delete an item. That's what the swarming, see-through social web requires, and that’s what we’re trying to do, belatedly, here.