Tragedy in the age of social media

I don’t know when I cried so much as I did on Friday. The photograph of the children being led away from the school by a police officer and teachers initially set me off, but throughout the day, tears would just erupt as I frantically re-loaded Twitter, and then Facebook, and then checked Huffington Post, AP, Reuters, the New York Times, obsessed with finding the latest information, the latest news.

But it was strange, the news kept changing. The shooter was dead. There was possibly another shooter. The second shooter was taken in for questioning. The mother was dead — she was in the classroom with her students. The murderer’s brother was dead at their family home. No, his father was dead in their family home. No, it was his mother that was at the family home, but she was a teacher at the school. The killer’s name is Ryan Lanzer. No, it’s Ryan Lanza. No, actually Ryan Lanza is the killer’s brother. The real killer’s name is Adam Lanza. His mother wasn’t a teacher at the school at all.

Wait, what? Why was so much of the information so completely wrong all day?

I’m sure it was a very difficult day for the journalists who reported on the story. I cannot imagine how stressful that must be — but my goodness, there definitely seemed to be a tendency toward putting statements out there before they were confirmed.

I know my behavior as a consumer of the news was just adding to the problem. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was glued to my computer screen, refreshing the page every thirty seconds, or else watching the television news or listening to the radio all day. It’s so horrible — we need to know what happened, why it happened, how it happened. We need to know everything. And there’s enormous pressure on journalists to get it to us as fast as possible. But perhaps, there could have been a little more prudence. Maybe make sure facts are correct before you publish them? 

The reporting errors are much more forgivable than the interviews with children. What made these media people think that was okay, to put these kids in front of the television camera hours after such a horrific tragedy? How could they think that was in any way a decent way to behave?

I can only imagine the scene — the media circus descending, scraping for more information, as the victims’ families were trying to cope with what happened. I’m not saying they shouldn’t have been there. Obviously, this is a national tragedy, one that we’ll remember for many years to come. Certainly it was a story that needed to be told, but there was something so disrespectful in the interviews with children. I felt icky about the coverage. 

Two days later, the coverage seems to be better. Unlike mass killings before this, there seems to be more focus on the victims. That feels more honorable than the obsession Americans have with mass murderers, skyrocketing them into celebrity status. 

There are two ways that the American media can redeem themselves after the mistakes from Friday.  One is to finally open up a conversation about gun laws in this country.  Enough is enough — there have been too many mass killings in this country. Too many murders. Too many lives lost. Secondly, we need to open up a conversation about access to mental health care, and not only that. We need to talk about our society’s demonization of people that suffer from mental health issues. It’s going to be difficult, because cases like this only add to that demonization, making it more difficult for people who are suffering to acknowledge that they might have a problem. But we need to talk about these things, and now is the time to do it. 

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Sheila Regan's picture
Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan (sheila [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer.