Sunday, December 16, 2012
An unimaginable horror struck families in Newtown, Connecticut, this week when 20-year old Adam Lanza went on a mass shooting spree at the elementary school where his mother, Nancy, worked. As the information about the events became available during the aftermath, members of the media published information they obtained from law enforcement officials, who just plain got it wrong. For hours, the news reported that Lanza's older brother, Ryan, was the killer. News of Ryan's alleged role in the massacre spread virally across the nation, and the world. There were no efforts, apparently, to independently verify the identity of the shooter. I was troubled to learn of this mistake, which took hours to correct in the unfolding news cycle, because I am a Public Relations professional who has been taught to rely on the veracity of the information practitioners like me receive from the investigating law enforcement agencies in such incidents. Later, we learned that the shooter was actually carrying his older brother's ID, so it does seem an honest mistake. But, meanwhile, the communication trail has wreaked havoc, and older brother Ryan's face has been posted all over the Internet, the permanent and intractable record of his presumed 'guilt.' The mistake was corrected, and the story continued to wend it's course as the country reeled with unspeakable sadness, learning further that 20 children, many of them 6 and 7 year olds, had been killed at point blank range by Adam Lanza. Another mistake that the media made, in my opinion, was interviewing the surviving classmates of the murdered children. Several news organizations apparently leapt to gather footage from children at Sandy Hook Elementary School who had been ushered out of the school building to safety by teachers and other school personnel when the gunshots were heard. Still reeling from the fear of perhaps being shot themselves, learning that some of their classmates had died in the shootings only moments or hours before, several of the children who appeared on camera for interviews were 6 or 7 years old, and were asked to recount the action they took, and their personal emotions about the terrifying incident. I understand why the reporters on the scene, and their ultimate producers back in the studio, decided to capture these moments from the youngest among us. And yet,as I watched this news coverage, I felt a gut wrenching pain for the children followed by anger that the news media (and presumably their parents who gave permission) had felt it more important to have these vulnerable, innocents--practically babies, really--tell their stories on national television rather than comfort and shield them during such a time. The third mistake, which I hope will be corrected as the reporting continues in ensuing days, is the inference that some are making that because the shooter was identified as being autistic, or perhaps on the autism scale, that this somehow is connected to the violence he enacted at his mother's workplace. This kind of misinformation can sway public opinion about an already misunderstood condition that impacts hundreds of thousands of families in our country and elsewhere, and can reinforce the stigmas of 'mental health labels' in a way that sets us back decades. 'Suffering from autism' does not, of course, equate to violent behavior in any way. In fact, the use of the term 'suffering,' as many news outlets are reporting, implies some malady. Many people live with a condition that makes them experience the world differently...some suffer, many do not, and still more merely understand that they view and experience the world differently than some defined 'norm,' and therefore they are 'different.' The diagnosis of autism does not automatically imply that a person is 'sick,'mentally or otherwise.