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Media gather in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 15, 2012 as the community copes with the elementary school shooting. (Getty Images News)

Getting It Right: Sandy Hook And The Giffords Legacy At NPR

Dec 22, 2012

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There has been much breast-beating and finger-pointing in and about the news media since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School one week ago. I have stayed quiet, in part because I think most Americans are smart enough to realize that mistakes are inevitable in the early reporting. I also think that NPR's reporters and editors have done a remarkably good job.

Indeed, most complaints that I have received and continue receiving from NPR listeners are that NPR covered the incident live throughout the first afternoon, and that it continues to cover the burials and still-emerging facts in such detail.

These are not strictly ombudsman matters of ethics and news standards, but rather are matters of personal taste and of what kind of news organization you want NPR to be. How much you heard may also depend on how much your local station picked up from NPR's national feed.

Ronalee Johannsen of Stonington, Conn., was physically close to the event but clearly doesn't want NPR to be like a cable television news channel. "Living in CT, I want to know what happened," he wrote, "but NPR is making a fool of itself spending 2 hours trying to fill in the time with speculation and hyper-analyzing when it has just happened!! This is not the quality and thoughtfulness expected from public radio."

Tom Creswell from faraway Dallas, Ore., pretty much agreed. "So far, the content I heard could have been covered in a brief 5 minute report, and then if something new actually broke, your regular programs could have been interrupted for that news," he wrote.

Margaret Low Smith, the senior vice president for news, defended the live programming, saying: "It was a clear decision to get on the air when the significance of what happened in Newtown became apparent. This was a major story. Things were unfolding very quickly and at a moment like this, our audience relies on us to be there for them and to tell them what we know."

My own tastes don't run toward following live coverage of spectacles (or participating in it all when I was a reporter). But I leave it to NPR's managers, marketers and editors like Smith to determine what you, the NPR audience, wants. Live radio can be powerful, but the editors had no idea — when at 2 p.m. Eastern time on that grisly Friday, host Guy Raz bumped the normal feed of Science Friday — whether any compelling new news would happen during the next couple of hours. Little did, other than confirming the number of deaths.

But on a story with the significance of Sandy Hook — and it was significant — does NPR want to be a service to which the public can dip in and out for quick updates? This is what many of us do with cable news, limiting the actual audience they often claim.

NPR's stock in trade is magazine news shows and call-in discussions that in their variety, intelligence and storytelling compel us to listen at length or to dwell online. Yet, a serious news organization also has to cover the news as it happens.

Choices, choices. The call in the end is yours.

Smith continued: "When news of major national or international significance is unfolding, it's not unusual for NPR to provide what we call rolling coverage. Especially when we're outside our regular news magazine broadcast windows. In an era of instant communication there are clearly heightened expectations on this front. The newsworthiness of the event is always paramount.

"So too is our ability to steer clear of speculation and deliver the kind of careful, informed reporting that listeners expect, even as the story is unfolding."

This brings me back to the coverage itself. After NPR wrongly reported nearly two years ago that Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had died after she was shot, the newsroom has tightened its internal procedures to emphasize accuracy over speed. I totally agree with the policy, the results of which were evident in the Sandy Hook coverage.

The closest thing to a real mistake that I and researcher Lori Grisham could find was the naming of the shooter as Ryan Lanza during the back and forth between host Raz and reporter Carrie Johnson, citing law enforcement sources. Some listeners complained that Ryan Lanza had already been widely named in other news media, and that NPR was too cautious. But soon the NPR team was raising doubts by noting that there were two Lanza brothers, and eventually confirmed that the shooter was actually the other brother, Adam.

The commendable restraint and accuracy of NPR's coverage was due in large part to a steady hand and strong coordination by editors at the top, setting the tone for excellent work by reporters and producers, too. What follows are some of the running internal memos from editors during the first day and-a-half of the coverage. At the risk of looking like a shill, I thought that you might find them a fascinating inside look into the newsroom and coverage, as I did. Instead of my summarizing the coverage, these memos also speak for themselves.

While I have found that coordination of news information and language use sometimes falls between the cracks among NPR's many news teams and shows, the pitfalls were avoided this time. The memos are a virtual classroom lesson. Note the specificity, the caution and the instructions on what cannot be reported. Note also further down the concern for ethics and grieving families.

Newtown police received the first call of shooting at Sandy Hook at roughly 9:30 a.m. Eastern time. At 1:52 p.m., as NPR prepared to go live at 2 p.m., Steve Drummond, senior national editor for news and the lead editor on the story, put out this short memo to the staff, underlining how little was known:

Basic facts: the shooting this morning reported 9:30 a.m. at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Multiple fatalities but NO SOLID NUMBERS yet. The shooter is deceased.

As details began to be confirmed, he wrote at 3:48 p.m.:

28 Total fatalities.

At the school:
20 children (including two who died later at the hospital)
6 adults
1 shooter

Plus one fatality elsewhere

Similar messages followed through the night and the next day. At 11:08 a.m. Saturday, December 15, Drummond put out another memo to the staff:

Still awaiting key details from law enforcement: notably official confirmation on the gunman's identity and any details about what motivated him. Also details about his mother and her affiliation (if any) with the school.[Reporter] Carrie Johnson confirms from federal law enforcement officials that the victim in the separate site was Adam Lanza's mother, Nancy Lanza.

We also expect today names of the victims (reporting guidelines on victims and their families coming from [Managing Editor for Standards and Practices] Stu Seidel. We anticipate honoring the request from law enforcement to respect the privacy of the families.) We're also pursuing, and awaiting, more details about the weapons, the timeline, and biographical information about Adam Lanza.

At 11:37 a.m. Drummond sent this major wrap-up, making sure that reporters, editors and producers stayed on the same page:

Friday, December 14, at about 9:30 a.m. ET the Newtown, CT police got a call from Sandy Hook Elementary School, alerting authorities to a shooting at the school.

Federal law enforcement officials have since identified to NPR that the gunman, Adam Lanza, 20, went to one area of the building where he shot 26 people dead.

Lt. J. Paul Vance of the Connecticut State Police has said that twenty children died. (18 at the scene, two later at Danbury Hospital) and six adults. The gunman is also dead. He was found dead at the scene.

Lanza gained access to the school forcibly, according to Lt. Vance.

The total number of fatalities is 28, including a victim found at another site. NPR was told by federal law enforcement sources that the victim is Nancy Lanza, who was found dead at a home in Newtown.

The chronology and order of the shootings has not been announced by police.

Law enforcement authorities tell NPR that Nancy Lanza was a gun collector.

Adam Lanza's brother, Ryan, lives in Hoboken, NJ. He is cooperating with police.

Adam Lanza's father, Peter, lives in Stamford, CT.

A law enforcement official on the ground in Connecticut tells NPR that authorities have recovered 3 weapons inside the school: a Sig Sauer handgun, a Glock handgun, and a .223 caliber Bushmaster rifle. All three were legally purchased and have ties to Nancy Lanza. The mother also had purchased other weapons, the source said. AT THIS POINT (11:30 a.m.) there is NO EVIDENCE the two pistols had been outfitted to carry extra amounts of ammunition, the source added.

UNCONFIRMED, CANNOT REPORT:

1. That Adam Lanza shot himself. This seems likely but has not been confirmed.
2. That Ryan Lanza's identification was found at the scene
3. That some or other weapons were found in a car or not at the scene
4. The chronology and order of the shootings. That Lanza was "buzzed in" to the school. Lt Vance suggests this information was incorrect when he stated that the gunman "forcibly" gained access to the school.
6. Any evidence pertaining to the capacity or supposed modifications to the weapons.
7. That Nancy Lanza was affiliated with the school as a substitute teacher, an aide or in any other way. There are lots of conflicting and contradictory reports about this.

The sense of honor that we expect from NPR in handling the families was underlined in a memo 10 minutes later from Stuart Seidel, the editor for standards and practices:

Officials have not yet made public the names of victims of Friday's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and NPR is not trying to independently determine the names of victims. We will wait for an official announcement before using names on the air or in material generated by NPR for publication online. NPR is also respecting the wishes of family members of victims and not making any attempts to contact them.

NPR and station reporters are working hard to tell the story of the community and the investigation into the shootings. Once officials have announced the names of victims, we will also tell their stories, as best we can learn their stories without violating the privacy of the family members.

We expect that other news organizations will not respect the wishes of family members to be left alone, and we expect that some family members will contact the media or make public statements.

On a case by case basis, we will decide whether to use quotes or information that appears in other media. (We have already made one exception: We have reported on the air and online that one of the victims is Nancy Lanza, the mother of the gunman, as law enforcement officials have told NPR.) As well, we will decide on a case-by-case basis whether to contact family members who speak publicly or release public statements.

This will inevitably result in other news organizations having information about victims before we have that information, and many of you may disagree with this approach. If you have any questions, please send them directly to me.

Seidel and Mark Stencel, managing editor of digital news, jointly sent a second memo at 2:38 p.m. Saturday that was particularly clear on reporting ethics:

There's been a remarkable amount of accurate and inaccurate information in the news and in the social media world in the 24 hours since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

As with past stories, good and helpful leads first emerged on Twitter and other social media. Participating in these public conversations is part of our reporting process. Social media channels are valuable reporting tools that help us corroborate accounts and verify information.

But we must be careful about how we use information that appears in social media. Sharing details to specifically sort facts from rumors and seek dependable news sources is different from reflexively re-tweeting information that is at odds with NPR's guidelines for what we are reporting and when we report it.

As we've said before, use these tools. Share what you're hearing, seeing and reporting. Question sources and your online followers to validate information. Bring our followers into the newsroom and the news process. But also be thoughtful and cautious and keep in mind the reminders from the social media section of NPR's handbook of standards and practices (http://ethics.npr.org/tag/social-media/ ) that we shared with you on Election Day:

— "Verify information before passing it along."

— "Conduct yourself online just as you would in any other public circumstances as an NPR journalist."

— "Treat those you encounter online with fairness, honesty and respect, just as you would offline."

— "Avoid actions that might discredit your professional impartiality."

— "Remember, you represent NPR."

The Sandy Hook massacre was an awful day for the nation, and especially for Newtown and the families involved. The NPR news staff acquitted itself honorably and well.

Lori Grisham contributed to this report.

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