Three tragic shootings: Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut, December 14, 2012; Century's Cinemark 16 Theater, Aurora, Colorado, July 20, 2012; Columbine High School, Littleton, Colorado, April 20, 1999. These traumatic events generated highly emotional responses all across our country. In each case, the mass media provided significant misinformation that both fueled the emotionality and interfered with an effective analysis of the causes.
In the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, attention has naturally focused on causes and prevention, with the emphasis on both guns and mental health. There are considerable resources and opportunities for teachers and parents to engage children in educational moments related to both. But what I think has gotten lost in all of this is the way the shooting was reported in the media. The dissemination of colossal misinformation by both mainstream and social media is a blinking red light to which every educator should pay attention. It also provides an excellent opportunity for developing students' knowledge base and skills in reading the media.
Let's look at exactly how each of these traumatic events was presented by the media.
Do you remember that two unpopular teenagers from the Trench Coat Mafia sought revenge against the jocks? If you do, you and almost everyone else got it wrong, thanks to the inaccurate reporting by most media sources. By the way, Columbine High isn't even located in the town of Littleton. It's located in the unincorporated township of Columbine, near Littleton. So the media even got that wrong. Even now many people hold onto a memory of two Goth-obsessed loners whose spree was motivated by revenge. There were also many false assumptions made about the parents of both boys. Andrew Solomon's recent heralded book, Far from the Tree, includes a short but revealing interview with Tom and Sue Klebold, the parents of Dylan, one of the killers. It undermines the all-too-easy blaming of the parents that has long been part of the post-Columbine mythology.
Dave Cullen's award winning book, Columbine, does an excellent job of separating myth from reality and makes it very clear how much the media got wrong. His website is also a good source for related information.
The fact is that neither killer was especially a loner, and they had no specific target. Their goal was to kill 500 students with explosives. Their journals also refute the mythology of the event, but by the time they were made public, the popular narrative created by the media had already taken hold.
By the time of the Aurora Theater shooting, social media, with its capacity to launch a viral spread of misinformation within minutes, was also a critical variable in the process of irresponsible reporting. Most of the early reports were based on the perspectives of highly emotional participants. The Twitter, You Tube and Facebook accounts were often filled with misinformation and made the police investigation itself more difficult. Some individuals with the same name as the shooter were actually hounded on Facebook sites.
Every available emotional response of parents and participants was highlighted, and even President Obama said he was worried about his two daughters who regularly go to the movies.
The most irresponsible media response came from a leading ABC News commentator who suggested that the suspect might be affiliated with the Colorado Tea Party -- based on the fact that someone on that group's website had a similar name! This misinformation quickly spread across the Web.
The mess in reporting what went on at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut began immediately with the identification of the shooter as Ryan Lanza, who is in fact the shooter's brother, living in New Jersey. This false announcement by Wolf Blitzer on CNN caused a stream of unfounded accusations against Ryan.
The reports also indicated that the principal knew the killer and had buzzed him into the school, when in fact he had broken glass to gain entry. He was described as wearing combat gear, although that has never been corroborated.
The killer's mother was reported to be a teacher at the school who was found dead on the premises, when it appears she was largely unconnected to the school and was found dead in her home.
It is still undetermined as to whether the mother was "an avid gun collector," as described in the press. She had some guns and liked to shoot for sport, but we still don't know how many or whether she really was a "collector."
Media misrepresentation of the causes of the Newtown shooting continues to take place. There was recently a widely circulated report, coming initially from CBS News, that the shooter was motivated by a desire to top the record set by a Norwegian shooter some years ago. That report continued to be disseminated even as the primary police officials involved in investigating the case said that this information was not correct and that they are still collecting information from multiple sources regarding the motives of Adam Lanza.
The Dangers of Inaccurate Media Reporting
At its worst, all of this media misinformation is dangerous. Innocent people are damaged, and critical analysis of serious problems is undermined when careful fact-checking procedures are ignored in the interests of being first with the news.
We also have to acknowledge that it isn't just the media who are to blame. The media seizes on the madness of crowd responses and feeds off our own emotionality. Irrational responses from both the left and the right in each shooting interfered with effective problem solving directed toward prevention. From guns to parenting to mental health, effective dialogue has been difficult. As just one example, while liberals see tight gun control as the best answer, conservatives put forward proposals to give each school its own police force. All of this madness of crowds is perfect fodder for the media machine.
What We Can Do
So what can we as educators do? Most importantly, we have a responsibility to teach our students to see and understand how the media often provides emotionally charged misinformation, designed more to attract viewers and readers than to carefully uncover the truth. We also now have a responsibility to make sure our students don't contribute to the problem by disseminating unverified information through Twitter, Facebook or other social media.
There are many resources to help teachers design units about this, in addition to their own research and creativity. The Center for Media Literacy continually publishes useful materials for teachers.
The News Literacy Project is superb and produces useful curriculum materials. I would strongly urge teachers to make their principals aware of this project and to consider becoming one of the participating schools.
The News Literacy website also provides useful links to curriculum guides for teachers.
Additionally, I recommend that you revisit my Edutopia post from August 2012, in which I more broadly covered the topic of reading the media. In that column I also strongly recommended that teachers make use of an excerpt from the first episode of the HBO show, The Newsroom, in which the news anchor apologizes for his role in misrepresenting the news. The series will be available on video in June.
The media representation of the recent events in Newtown provides a teaching opportunity for every social studies and English teacher. Raising a generation of students who are able to respond critically and rationally to these events, and to resist the manipulation that feeds both emotionality and ignorance, will help create an informed electorate that can respond more effectively to solving the attendant problems.