DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And if you've been following the news from Newtown, you may have noticed that much of the information reported in the hours after Friday's tragedy turned out not to be true.
NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik suggests there's a certain inevitability about that in the current media environment.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Everybody got so much so wrong, that it's hard to single anybody out. Among the news outlets that wrongly reported major parts of the journalistic building blocks of who, what, where, when, why and how were CBS, the Associated Press, The New York Times, NPR - a near honor roll of the mainstream media - relying on unnamed federal law enforcement officials, or even more generally, the authorities. Just before 3 pm on Friday, for example, viewers saw reports like this one - in this case, on Fox News.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Cops have identified the shooter as a 24-year-old man, Ryan Lanza.
FOLKENFLIK: No, not Ryan Lanza. Over on CNN...
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We were hearing from John King, from some of his federal law enforcement sources that this shooter, in his 20s, Ryan Lanza - let me quote this federal law enforcement officer, saying "Ryan Lanza not a stranger to the school."
FOLKENFLIK: Again, not Ryan. And there's no evidence of any link between shooter and school. Over on MSNBC...
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The search warrant is being conducted in Hoboken, New Jersey. That is where he apparently lived. But we do know that shortly after 9:30 this morning, he walked into his mother's kindergarten classroom and opened fire. He killed her and...
FOLKENFLIK: The wrongly identified Ryan Lanza lived in Hoboken. His younger brother Adam - now identified in official statements as the shooter - did not. Their mother did not teach kindergarten at the school, as was reported, nor did she work nor volunteer there, according to school officials. The principal did not recognize and let him into the school. And another report that Adam Lanza had confronted teachers the day before, that was wrong, too. What happened here?
BEN SMITH: What had happened was that a guy was misidentified as a mass murderer. I mean, that's horrendous.
FOLKENFLIK: Ben Smith is editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, a site that straddles old fashioned reporting with social media practices.
SMITH: There were hours of mass confusion in the press, from the authorities and then, naturally, among readers and viewers.
FOLKENFLIK: But the reporters didn't make it up. Law enforcement officials did offer mistaken leads in good faith, yet the information was not confirmed on the record. Smith has worked in the past for conventional newspapers. He says coverage hasn't really changed, but the way reporters construct it and readers and viewers consume it has. Now, he says, it's all playing out in full view and in real time. BuzzFeed relied on the wrong identification of the older brother as the shooter by CNN and others. And BuzzFeed, among other sites, pulled a picture and postings of Ryan Lanza from his Facebook page and slapped them online. Smith says he regrets it deeply, but he also says...
SMITH: There's going to be a massive, fast conversation on social media, and on Twitter in particular, trying to figure out everything they can about anyone whose name has appeared. And the idea that the professionals should make sure that they have nothing to do with that conversation strikes me as a bad idea.
FOLKENFLIK: And yet the wrong guy is thought for some hours to be a killer of children by millions of people before the media darts en masse in an entirely different direction, like a vast school of small fish. It took the writer Dave Cullen a decade to report and write an authoritative account of the 1999 shootings in at Columbine High School in Colorado. He says the media had established to its own satisfaction exactly why the teens turned into killers.
DAVE CULLEN: We knew unequivocally that they were kind of loner outcasts, goths from the trenchcoat mafia who had done this as a revenge slaying, primarily against jocks who they were targeting, to pay them back for the relentless bullying they had undergone.
FOLKENFLIK: None of that was true, Cullen says. But he argues it's unfair to expect precision from the press immediately after a crisis starts, as long as it moves with speed to correct itself.
CULLEN: But in the meantime, all sorts of people jump to all sorts of conclusions about what that means about this killer and why he did it. And I thought that was, well, I guess, irresponsible.
FOLKENFLIK: In catastrophes and crises, the press is writing in pencil and erasing it and trying again. In stories like these, the first draft of history isn't even a draft. It's usually just raw notes, waiting for rewrite. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.