Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Tragedy brings out best, worst of media

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
updated 5:49 AM EST, Mon December 17, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howard Kurtz says media rightly rushed to report the story of the vast tragedy in Newtown
  • He says the wrong man was identified as the shooter, and other mistakes were made
  • Kurtz: Story deserves intense reportage, but did media go too far with branding?
  • He says gun control flares up as a topic after these events, but media rarely pushes the issue

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- A sudden tragedy brings out the best in the media: journalists racing to the scene, ferreting out the details, leading the nation through its grief.

It also brings out the worst.

In the fragmentary accounts that followed Friday's horrifying massacre at a Connecticut school, some news organizations, following in the tracks of social media, managed to identify the wrong man as the shooter.

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

And then television provided a platform for the instantaneous finger-pointing and point-scoring that all too often follows such shootings.

I am conflicted when I watch the instant network specials, led by top anchors and featuring theme music and fancy logos, as I did after Columbine, after Virginia Tech, after Tucson, after Aurora. Of course they want to devote time and resources to a major national story. But it also feels at times like a branding exercise, an effort to grab ratings share after a heartbreaking event.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



I am conflicted as well at watching some journalists interview children who saw the carnage. I understand their value as eyewitnesses, but these are young kids who had just been through a terrible trauma. To me, at least, it feels exploitative. Some organizations, including CNN, require the parents' permission, but it is not clear that all outlets followed such a policy in the scramble that followed the shootings.

I was not conflicted at all when I read that a Hartford Courant reporter called the shooter's grandmother in Florida. "I just don't know, and I can't make a comment right now," Dorothy Hanson, 78, said in a shaky voice as she started to cry. I fail to see what that added to our understanding of the tragedy.

Watch: Jon Stewart, media critic, takes on Fox

The worst offense, though, was the headlong rush to identify the shooter as Ryan Lanza, 24, and blast his Facebook profile picture around cyberspace. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, CBS, Slate, the Huffington Post and others named Ryan Lanza as the suspect, some of them based on guidance from law enforcement sources. In this wired age, his name was bandied about on Twitter and in other social media forums.

What's next?
Call for gun control action
Presidents as Comforter-in-Chief
Gov: Sad truth is, there are no answers

The news outlets had to correct their reports when it turned out that the shooter was 20-year-old Adam Lanza, his brother, who first killed their mother. But they had suggested that an innocent man was responsible for murdering 27 people, including 20 children. What's more, most reports erroneously said Lanza's mother taught at the Newtown elementary school (a mistake I initially repeated as well).

Watch: From Joe Scarborough to Rush Limbaugh, the conservative media meltdown

Blogger Jeff Jarvis, who teaches journalism at the City University of New York, expressed regret for retweeting information about Ryan Lanza, although Jarvis did not use his name: "I did not say this was the 'alleged' or 'reputed' account of the person named as the killer. These are basic, basic journalistic skills drilled until they are reflexes and I would use them in any story for print. I didn't use them online." Not everyone was as candid in confessing their mistakes.

The rush to judgment is hardly an isolated incident. After an Arizona gunman last year killed six people and wounded Gabby Giffords, some news organizations erroneously reported that the congresswoman was dead.

After the Aurora shooting this past summer in a theater showing a Batman movie, ABC's Brian Ross told viewers the suspect was linked to the Colorado tea party before apologizing for reporting on someone with the same name.

Watch: Is 'Zero Dark Thirty' tortured history or propaganda?

After Friday's violence, there was an instinct by some in the media to pound away at their favorite positions. Mike Huckabee said on Fox News: "We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we've systematically removed God from our schools." I respect the former Arkansas governor, but Friday did not seem like the time for such a statement.

At the same time, Rush Limbaugh ripped MSNBC's Alex Wagner and CNN's Piers Morgan for saying the massacre pointed up the need for stricter gun control.

"You've got a horrible event here, and they're already looking to politicize it. ... These people look at stuff like this as an opportunity to advance their agenda or blame conservatives." (The three guns, including an assault rifle, used by Adam Lanza were legally registered to his mother.)

All this is reminiscent of what happened to NBC's Bob Costas when he used a halftime commentary to question the gun culture in this country after an NFL player was involved in a murder-suicide. Costas was attacked from the right for daring to inject a serious issue into a sporting event.

Watch: The media fixate on Hillary and 2016, again

Except in the days following a mass shooting, the media seem to shy away from a serious debate over gun control, perhaps fearing that it is too divisive and will alienate a broad swath of readers and viewers. The mainstream press operates under the assumption that Congress will never pass a gun-control measure because of the NRA's clout and therefore the matter isn't much worth pursuing. The issue was barely mentioned in the presidential campaign, and journalists made no attempt to force it onto the national agenda.

The same thing will happen after Newtown inevitably fades from the newscasts and the front pages, and the gun question disappears until the next big tragedy forces us to revisit it once again.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT