FACTS ARE NOT TRUE
AND THAT'S A FACT
By: John David Powell
Hash Brown, down at Sparkys Diner, likes to tell the story about his buddy
who handed out a fistful of dollar bills to the good-looking exotic dancer,
only to find out she was a he. Hash says his buddy
learned the hard way that not everything is what it seems, no matter how up close and
personal you get.
The idea that facts are not always the truth is a lesson journalists never seem to
learn, and the bigger the story, the more we seem to fail the test.
The live coverage of the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School murders in Newtown,
Conn., is an example. The situation quickly became one where reporters interviewed
reporters who reported on the reports of other reporters.
At some point, we learned police identified Ryan Lanza as the killer. Unnamed sources
at the time confirmed the shooters name based on an ID card found on the body. We
now know the shooter, Adam Lanza, was carrying his brothers ID.
Once the name Ryan Lanza went on air and online, folks in newsrooms across the country
(including mine) scoured the Web in search of images of the monster. It did not take long
to find his Facebook page, which carried enough facts to confirm it belonged to the right
Ryan Lanza. Thousands of other people who are not working journalists also found the page,
and under the cloak of anonymity posted vile and hateful messages.
But, the facts and the truth were not the same, prompting Ryan Lanza to post that he
was not the same Ryan Lanza who was dead in Newtown. He soon realized the awful
truth, as did members of the international news media. When they did, they
updated the story with new information, and blamed the mistake on
the confusion that goes with covering a fluid situation.
God forbid we let facts stand in the way of truth when competing for a scoop.
Before the sun set on that dreadful day, the media sought out proponents of stricter
gun control laws, a valid sidebar to the story. The information presented as fact was not
always true, however; and the same holds for the debates we hear today.
It is a fact that 2012 has seen several mass killings, defined as the murders of four
or more individuals, most recently 12 patrons in a Colorado movie theater, six worshipers
at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and 27 children and adults in Connecticut.
And, it is a fact that in this country we average around 20 mass murders a year. But,
regardless of what people say, the truth is that the number of mass killings in America is
Grant Duwe, a resident scholar with Baylor University (www.baylorisr.org/scholars/d/duwe-grant)
and a criminologist with the Minnesota Department of Corrections (www.doc.state.mn.us), says mass killings in America
peaked in 1929. In his book Mass Murder in the United States: A History (www.amazon.com/Mass-Murder-United-States-History/dp/0786431504
), Duwe notes that we had fewer mass killings in the first decade of this century than we
had in the last decade of the twentieth century.