News Media Disappoints In Reporting Connecticut Mass Murder (Plus 18 Comments)

Note: An interesting discussion — mostly about mental health issues — follows this brief post.

It’s nearly a week now since the tragic shooting and loss of innocent life in Connecticut. Like many, I’m hesitant to write about this most recent mass murder out of respect for the families, and because so much information is unknown.

Two observations stand out, however, regarding television news coverage:

First, a great deal of speculation has been aired about mental illness. Never before have the words autism and “Asperger’s” been spoken so often on television in such a short time. It’s probably misleading to even classify autism and Asperger’s as mental illnesses, at least not without clarification. They certainly should not be associated with conditions such as Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I’d wager that many people are hearing about Asperger’s Syndrome for the first time, and half-baked information is apt to create an undeserved stigma for both autism and Asperger’s. 

Second, after nearly a week, authorities and news media should have provided the public with much more complete information. I know the following from experience as a reporter and editor: Despite the confusion surrounding an unexpected violent event, competent reporters can usually piece together a fairly complete account within a few hours.

Even when police withhold or refuse to confirm information, witnesses and residents of the locale know who is involved and what happened, and reporters quickly collect all the pertinent information. However, newspapers often decline to print names until next of kin have been located, or to protect the identity of minors. And editors, especially small-town editors, routinely decide not to print gruesome details or disclose private personal information in times of tragedy.

During my newsroom days (mostly nights, actually) I was often amazed how much information reporters and editors are able to collect and organize under pressure of deadline. The first day’s report usually lacks some names and details, often out of an abundance of caution by the editors.

But certainly, a full 24 hours after the crime, the fundamental facts are known. The second-day story contains a nearly complete report, with liberal use of qualifying words such as “allegedly” and “apparently.” No known fact or circumstance is withheld without compelling justification.

In the Connecticut shooting, police are being circumspect in the extreme. I’m not in a position to judge whether they’re being overly cautious or not. The blanket police protection of the crime scene and most of the witnesses has made it more difficult than usual for reporters to collect information, and reporters are being prudently respectful of the tragic circumstances.

But after nearly a week, shouldn’t we know more than a few sketchy details about the lives of the shooter and his mother? Makes you wonder what the police and media might be hiding.

Downsizing of news staffs over the past two decades has compromised effective reporting. Journalists are in the habit of relying entirely on official information, rather than reporting the news by observation and independent interviews and investigation.

Confusion over news from the Connecticut shooting is eerily similar to the bungling of information from Benghazi, Libya, a few weeks ago. In both cases, there were errors in the initial reports, and the full story took a week or more to emerge. Almost all the information was released through government channels.

The relevance of the mainstream media is fast eroding and will probably be impossible to restore. If the trend continues, the public will lose confidence in any and all information coming from both the government and the media. No wonder there’s no consensus about  global warming.

New media, such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter, are woefully inadequate and unreliable for dissemination of serious news, with the possible exception of weather and cultural reporting. Blogs and social media are more likely to spread lies, rumors and hoaxes than  factual information.

It’s entirely possible that we’re entering a dark age of confusion, misinformation, and even superstition.

— John Hayden

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18 Comments

Filed under Health, News

18 responses to “News Media Disappoints In Reporting Connecticut Mass Murder (Plus 18 Comments)

  1. rossaforbes

    John,

    I’m not sure how much you know about the labels of autism, Aspergers syndrome, schizophrenia and bipolar. Actually, some of the behaviors associated with these conditions can be observed throughout all. (Autism used to be considered childhood schizophrenia.) Autism or Asperger’s will not explain Adam Lanza’s action, just as “schizophrenia” will not explain the actions of a small segment of past mass killers.

    Perhaps you are not aware that there has been a massive debate going on in mental health communities about the validity of these labels and whether there really is what is now popularly considered a “chemical imbalance” of the brain. The chemical imbalance theory became popular in the 1970s partly due to a couple of mothers in California who later went on to found the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI). These mothers and parents joined forces because they were fed up with the parent blaming theories of psychiatry that had held sway since psychiatry was in its infancy. NAMI joined forces with pharmaceutical companies, who were more than pleased to increase their sales by promoting the biochemical imbalance theory.
    Today, we are at on the threshold of change, after science has not been able to find genes for mental illness, or prove that a biochemical imbalance exists, or prove that the unmedicated brain is different from a normal brain. More and more psychiatrists and scientists are calling the “science” behind autism, Aspergers, Schizophrenia,and bipolar “junk” science. More attention is being paid to the environmental incubators of these behaviors.

    If you are interested in learning more, try the Mad in America webzine, which was started by Robert Whitaker, a former Boston Globe medical and science reporter, and author of Mad in America, and Anatomy of an Epidemic. http://www.madinamerica.org The bloggers on this site include people with lived experience, peer specialists, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, program managers, social activists, attorneys, and journalists. While their opinions naturally vary, they share a belief that our current system of psychiatric care needs to be vastly improved, and, many would argue, transformed. There is much discussion on this site about the Newtown tragedy. You may wish to check out the blog by Ken Braiterman, a former newspaper reporter.

    Best regards,
    Rossa Forbes

    Like

    • Rossa, thanks for your thoughtful input. I’m NOT a mental health professional, and certainly have only a superficial knowledge of mental illness in general.

      I do have a good bit of information (even insight) in a number of areas, to wit: depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Asperger’s). My knowledge and insight comes from personal and family experiences and study.

      We can certainly agree that “our current system of psychiatric care needs to be vastly improved,” and possibly transformed. I might disagree, at least in spirit, with your assertion that “genes for mental illness” have not been identified. I have little knowledge of the current research in this field. But I do know that considerable evidence indicates quite clearly that some specific illnesses and conditions follow family lines. From what I know, I believe there are both genetic and environmental factors. Predispositions may be inherited, and behaviors and personalities may be “learned” from parents or others.

      Regarding disputes about the veracity of scientific information and the efficacy of specific organizations, such as NAMI, please consider me a skeptic. I’m in no hurry to jump on any bandwagon of speculative criticism regarding scientists or organizations who have made a good-faith effort to advance the cause of knowledge and treatment. I continue to give the benefit of the doubt to recognized professionals and organizations with established reputations. Understandably, patients and their families are sometimes in “denial” of the facts.

      I very much appreciate your information, and I’ll take a look at the Web sites you recommend. — John

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  2. Besides the actual horror of this event, the reporting has been downright awful. I stopped watching the mainstream news after they reported the incorrect information the first two days. I’ll wait until the facts are truly established before watching the news again. I wonder, too, as this is an affluent community, if there is a throttling of information through undue influence. As has been pointed out by other observers, this would have played out differently if it had occurred at an inner city school in terms of reporting.
    It’s too early for any sort of speculation, but too late for real reporting. They have truly failed the public and as you pointed out, there may be no recovery if they don’t start paying for real reporters and not entertainers and talking heads. I’m old school – I like facts when I turn on the news.

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    • That community or government powers may be “throttling” information is a very real possibility. I know the following from experience as an editor late at night: When tragic events happen in close-knit communities, the newsroom phones ring off the hook with calls from people desperate to keep the news out of the newspaper. In the aftermath of tragedy, people seem to instinctively believe that if the news can be suppressed, then the tragedy did not really happen. They’ll wake up next day and find out it was all a nightmare.

      I’ve had to tell callers late at night that everyone in their neighborhood already knows about the event and is talking about it at that very moment. Rumor and fear spread at amazing speed by word of mouth. It’s in the community interest of all that correct facts be fully reported in the newspaper.

      I find it troubling that police have so strongly warned people about posting information on the Web, threatening prosecution. Obviously, fraudulent information should be discouraged, but the police-state tone can have a chilling impact on all valid communication.

      Like

  3. Theresa

    Amen, Bernie! I never worked in journalism, but I appreciate good reporting like The Sun used to have. I am so sad that it has mostly disappeared. It could thrive online, but misinformation is so much easier.

    Like

  4. Hi John. I think you have done well in sharing your thoughts and opinions in this post. (Thanks too for commenting on my blog. I haven’t been able to respond to your comment, because I am too raw with emotion these days when it comes to the subject of mental illness, and “treatment” in psychiatry). Alas. I am taking a bit of a leap by commenting here, but decided to add a thought or two.

    I am glad to see that Rossa Forbes commented. I respect her views and experience very much. I also agree with her that Asperger’s and Autism, along with Schizophrenia and Bipolar, have in part been the result of “junk” science.

    “Non-compliance” and “treatment” in modern-day Western medicine’s mental healthcare system can be and often is violent. Violence breeds violence and I have seen this happen in my family. Fortunately, we have not experienced physical tragedy, but we have most certainly been harmed by theory and coercion that is considered a normal part of psychiatric treatment.

    Many people are looking for humane and ethical treatment, which doesn’t equate denial, but does lead people to look for alternatives to psychiatry. Some people, like my family, must find ways to recover from the treatment we accepted as best, because we believed and trusted the, “recognized professionals and organizations with established reputations.”

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    • Thank you for commenting, Michelle. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

      Most ironically, just as I was reading your comment, I received a phone call from an employee at an institution in another state. A quite distant relative of mine has been imprisoned there for many years. He was convicted more than once of despicable crimes, and has been diagnosed with serious mental conditions. He is nearly 70 now, and apparently in declining health.

      The hospital sometimes contacts me, although I am only a distant relative and have never known this person well, because they have no one else to contact. The sadness of the situation — the harm this person has caused, and the imprisonment he has now endured, and his aloneness in the world — is difficult for me to even comprehend.

      Turning away from that distressing phone call, I hardly know what to think or say.

      Michelle, I do hope your family will experience healing and peace. It is indeed disappointing that the medical system so often does harm when it is trying to do good. This is true of the treatment of physical illness as well as mental illness. I’ve heard far too many stories in recent years of the drug-resistant infections contracted by many hospital patients, and patients who die as a result of hospital errors.

      It sometimes seems as if our society is plagued by an epidemic of incompetence.

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      • John, I am so sorry about your relative. I’ve met people in institutions who lived there for life, and a few children who were there for life too. It is a sad situation when people don’t have anyone to visit them. A couple of patients have asked me if I could visit them, and I guess I might if I had the time.

        I visited a prison once. I met an inmate who was one of the worst criminals in there. He spoke to me about his experience there. He said the worst part was knowing what his crimes had done and then, what prison for life had done to his mother. He told me what it was like the day he heard she died. He seemed, I guess, rehabilitated in some sense, but he knew he would never get out. I know prison is different from psychiatric institutions, but in some ways, they are the same.

        Wow, I didn’t mean to write so much. Again, I am raw with emotion.

        I wonder if they were calling you to ask if you wanted to visit. I can only imagine that this would be a difficult decision for you.

        Thank you so much for your well wishes John. I too hope my family gets help. We sure need it. I am starting to see the effects of stress on both my son and I, and even our dogs.

        I know people get sick from accidents, medications, as well as germs that were passed from Nurses or Doctors who didn’t take proper procedures like washing their hands before entering a hospital room. My grandmother died from Staph infection, and it was really horrible to watch.

        In psychiatry, some patients simply do not need to be institutionalized. Some get there because it is the easiest route, and they did not commit a crime. They get the same drugs though, and none are spared. They are forced to take antipsychotics that end up killing them or giving them other terrible diseases. One psychiatrist told me that the drugs they use takes thirty years off of a normal life. He said my son was one of the patients that he could not do this too. He said not too many patients came in with a spirit, and he refused to “kill my son’s spirit.”

        I would never, ever want my son to suffer and if he needs a medication, I will support that and do the best I can to make sure blood labs are done as needed, which is what I’ve done for ten years. I pray every day that things will get better, because I will not live forever.

        I wish you the very best. I hope you find peace in your heart and mind knowing you can only do so much for your distant relative. You are in my prayers.

        Warmly,
        Michelle.

        Like

  5. Michelle, the institution was calling to ask me if I could accept responsibility for making medical decisions for the distant relative. (It’s actually two institutions, a state prison and a hospital across the street.) They’ve asked before, and after serious consideration I’ve had to say it’s a responsibility I can’t handle, especially because of distance. How could I keep up to date on his conditions and make informed decisions? I was assured that he would get the medical care he needs one way or another. If there’s no family member to decide, then a judge orders the appropriate care.

    Over the years, I’ve corresponded at some length with the relative, and spoken to him on the phone many times. At one point, I had to stop reading his letters because they were so disturbing. As his health has declined, I’ve had little contact in recent years. I think he’s sometimes unable to communicate, either because of meds or illness. I feel guilty that I’ve never visited him, but money is short and it’s some distance. And frankly, frequent communication with the person is too much of a downer for me.

    The only positive I can report is that the prison system in that state seems to operate in a very humane manner.

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  6. This is one of the most worthwhile (and civil) discussions I’ve seen on the Internet to date.

    I, too, cringed at the way the media bandied around the terms “Asperger’s” and “autism,” because I am fairly certain that several important people in my life could have been diagnosed with Asperger’s, and have been moved to read what “Aspies” have to say for themselves. One of my first thoughts when I heard some of the original Newtown reporting — glib, perhaps, but it rushed up — was to wonder whether a young man with some of the quirky but harmless Asperger behaviors, lacking the right kind of emotional support and persecuted to all crap as such kids often are in school, had fugued in some way and shot, in living effigy as it were, kids reminding him those who might have made his life hell at the same age. It’s a novelist’s reaction and probably indefensible, but as one who was hyperverbal, precocious and not interested in “social cues” — though not at all Aspie — I have vivid memories of the treatment kids can dole out to the “different.” (Which is why I have bonded repeatedly with people who were not, as they like to call us, “neurotypical.”) Shift a few factors in the direction of instability, add guns, and there is nothing surprising, at least to me, about events like this.

    And the sad result is that people who share any or all of the speculative diagnoses will simply be made into bigger boogeymen. How about the media pointing out that Aspies practically gave us computers and the Internet, and probably big chunks of things like the space program or even the foundations of modern science? (Read biographies of Newton and Einstein.)

    Of course, the Asperger business remains fairly speculative from what I can see. But the boy was different, and how he was treated for being different very likely factored into what he did. Unfortunately, from this people will simply take away ” ‘Different’ people are all bad and will probably kill you,” instead of “Ostracizing ‘different’ people probably increases the odds that everyone will eventually suffer.”

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    • Thank you Ms. Sled. Your comments are wise and insightful as always. The description we have of the shooter as an exceptionally intelligent person alone in the world (in spite of the factual presence of teachers, schoolmates, and parents) is probably accurate and, of course, terribly sad.

      I understand exactly what you say about the inhumanity of children to other children. Especially in the middle school and high school years, teens form cliques and gangs, often ridiculing or even torturing outsiders who don’t “fit in.” Being ostracized by a peer group is one of the cruelest experiences a person can have. In addition, children can and do pick up on subtle hints of disapproval and rejection from teachers, and especially from parents. When rejection is perceived as the norm, an individual may adjust by adopting “avoidant” personality traits.

      I don’t claim a full understanding of Aspergers. (I think much of the research has been done in Australia. I believe Aspergers is better understood in Australia, Canada and England, while it is regarded with skepticism in the U.S. and France.) I do know that people with Aspergers characteristics often have difficulty making friends and lead lonely lives.

      Like

      • Never mind middle and high school — watch some 8 and 9 year olds at work, at the age when arm-twisting, hair-pulling, beating, spitting, and playground brutality peak. By eighth grade, people are getting positively civilized in comparison.

        Aspergers looks like being a difference in the way the nervous system processes input; I think there’s been some work done with PET scans and the like showing distinct and characteristic changes in where the brain handles information. The most important characteristic from my point of view is that Aspies have “no filters,” they just cannot block out distractions in the same way we do — or ignore noxious input, say scratchy sweaters. Think about that in the context of modern life. I’m just ordinarily sensitive — can’t deal with noise, crowds, etc. very gracefully — so I bond with them. I don’t see it as a mental “illness” in the same way as, say, mania; more of a different way of being, like being gay, which people used to see as a disease. I wish the rest of the world appreciated Aspies more.

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    • The most interesting and informed piece I have read on this tragedy was written by an anonymous young man for The Daily Beast. “I Was Adam Lanza” points us in the direction of understanding what may have motivated Adam Lanza. The writer, having a high I.Q. and being stigmatized on a daily basis when he was younger, knows the ingredients that prompt someone to act out their fantasies. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/12/22/i-was-adam-lanza.html

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  7. I guess I’m getting so old I can’t remember age 8 & 9. But I have no doubt that what you say about that age group is true. Ms. Sled, you are an astute observer and student of human nature. I HAVE to move reading one of your novels to the top of my to-do list.

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  8. Pingback: The Most Important Thing I Have Read Today « Sixteen Tons

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