The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Sandy Hook

December 19, 2012

In Newtown, fiction about shooter's mother made sense


The story began to spread. Just after 2 p.m., CBS reported that Lanza's mother was a teacher and that many of the victims were her students. CNN reporter Susan Candiotti identified her as a teacher, but she said she wasn't certain where Lanza had died. The Washington Post and The New York Times also reported that she was a teacher.

An hour later, AP "confirmed" its earlier story. It cited "a law enforcement official" in Washington who said that the suspect was Ryan Lanza, that his younger brother was being held for questioning as "a possible second shooter" and that their mother taught at the school.

Although the misidentification of the suspect was corrected within an hour, the teacher angle wasn't knocked down for almost 11 hours after it was first reported. At 11:16 p.m., AP moved an update, saying no connection had been found. Nevertheless, CNN and other news outlets continued to report the story as fact until early Saturday.

An AP spokesman, Paul Colford, said the news service got bad information from sources "we had no reason to disbelieve." He added, "We were confident in our sources, and our sources were wrong."

Yet the widespread reporting of the teacher story may have highlighted the news media's tendency to fill in the blanks on initially confusing and tragic stories, says W. Joseph Campbell, a communications studies professor at American University.

The idea that Nancy Lanza was killed with her students "is a narrative that does hang together and explains the story in ways the real story doesn't," said Campbell, the author of "Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism," a study of media-driven myths. "It's hard for us to accept the idea that something so horrible was completely random. The idea that she had little or no connection to the school makes it harder to wrap your mind around such a horrific and senseless act."

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