This Is Why the Press Circulated Ryan Lanza's Facebook Page

The deep psychological explanation for media error in the hours after Newtown

The deep psychological explanation for media error in the hours after Newtown

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

The Washington Post reports on the spread of an incorrect account of the massacre at Sandy Hook. Among those who passed along the story that the killer's mother was a teacher at the school was the Post's own columnist Charles Krauthammer, on Fox News.

You can't blame the original Associated Press story, which said a parent had made the assertion about the mother but that she was not on the official roster of teachers and that investigators had not confirmed her affiliation otherwise. Instead, Ms. Lanza's supposed connection with the school seems to have become a local rumor, relayed to reporters by citizens and members of the police who heard it from people they trusted, and in turn passed on.

Writing in the sociology journal Contexts (link for subscribers here) last year, my friend the sociologist Gary Alan Fine and his social psychology colleague Nicholas DiFonzo observe that rumors are created by communities in an attempt to make sense of an ambiguous and potentially threatening world. It's no surprise, then, that they thrive in times of tragedy when facts may still be hard to verify. Rumors may damage legitimate businesses and individual reputations, but they can also give advance warning of danger. The authors cite the fall of Bear Stearns: The rumors became what Robert K. Merton was the first to call a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it was not necessarily foolish to act on them while the firm's official position looked sound. (No matter how vigorously insider trading is prosecuted, the well-connected will remain the first to hear rumors, accurate and otherwise.)

We naturally avoid the idea that anything so horrendous could arise from a form of psychopathology that we don't understand, and that it could recur anywhere. All of us want senseless tragedy to have some profound lesson, whether it's about mental illness, firearms enthusiasm, or religious and ethnic groups. (Very different types of rumors circulate in African-American and white communities, and among liberals and conservatives.) "Narrative fulfillment" is what the journalism scholar W. Joseph Campbell calls the process in the Post's report.

The power of rumor means that "facts" may be independently confirmed by sources who may not know each other but participate in overlapping networks. And columnists and bloggers, abhorring knowledge vacuums, naturally seize on reports that reinforce their outlooks on the world.

What does this say about the media? The Post gives one interpretation:

While the media have made errors in many other breaking-news situations, the number of errors that grew out of the events in Newtown suggests "we're dealing with a new normal in terms of what happens in major events," said Craig Silverman, who writes Regret the Error, a blog about reporting mistakes.

Constant deadlines, intense competition, reduced news staffs and instantaneous transmission via social networks, Silverman says, make it likely that it will happen again. "People have to realize that this is going to happen a lot," he said.

Silverman's plea for restraint makes sense, but are the troubled economics of the media really to blame? I think not. At least, I haven't seen any account of journalism history that establishes a golden age of exactitude. Yes, misinterpretation of social media, like the Facebook page of the shooter's brother, can propagate error. But readers' emails and posted comments, along with Wikipedia and Twitter, are identifying more mistakes of a kind that once went unnoticed. Archived stories make it easy to look back at who said what.

The ultimate network for the spread of rumors may be reporters themselves. We should remember the perceptive observation of the distinguished historian and former journalist, Robert Darnton in a 1975 essay that I recently quoted here: "Nothing could be less competitive than a group of reporters on the same story."