Wednesday, July 1, 2015

On TV: How not to cover a school shooting

I'm almost afraid to add one word to the story of Friday's Newtown, Conn., school shootings for fear of adding to the wealth of the day's misinformation.

On TV: How not to cover a school shooting

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I’m almost afraid to add one word to the story of Friday’s Newtown, Conn., school shootings for fear of adding to the wealth of the day’s misinformation.


But having spent much of the afternoon watching what passed for coverage of this horror, I can’t help but be struck by how little television news has learned since Columbine about reporting these things.


As I write this, there are conflicting reports about the identity of the shooter, the location in which another body, said to be the shooter’s mother, was found and other things that some networks sounded pretty sure about an hour or so ago.


I’ve seen multiple reruns of an interview with a remarkably well-spoken little girl whose interrogation by a reporter, aired on CNN, would have been described as “leading the witness,” if it took place in a courtroom. And she’s not the only child who was interviewed.

“When we speak with these young kids, we only do it with their parents’ permission,” says CNN's Wolf Blitzer, as if that somehow justified it.


On CBS, a Newtown parent who called in earlier in the afternoon, was allowed to ramble on with rumors — at least one of which, tragically, seems to be true — and on every channel I tuned to, there were so-called experts speculating about the motivation and mental state of a killer who hadn’t yet been officially identified.


Yes, reporting is a messy business, and we all get it wrong sometimes. But knowing that, it’s astounding how few times today we heard reminders about that and how very certain much of the reporting sounded.


There’s a lot we need to know, but unless we’re unlucky enough to be among the loved ones of the 26 reported victims, there’s not much that couldn’t wait until more facts have been established.

Why does hearing it right the first time matter?


First impressions, sadly, have a way of sticking. You may think you know what happened at Columbine in 1999, but if you’re basing your knowledge on the news reports of that time, you probably don’t know very much at all.


As Dave Cullen reports in his 2009 book, “Columbine,” Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold bore little resemblance to the portraits painted of them at the time and the shooting rampage that left 15 dead, including the two shooters, wasn’t what they’d planned but what they fell back on when their plan to blow up the school failed.


Yes, we need to understand why these massacres continue to occur so we can figure out a way to keep them from happening. But instant analysis solves absolutely nothing.


At the very least, we can’t know what we’re dealing with until we know who we’re dealing with.

Daily News TV Critic
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