The Herald Bulletin

Evening Update

Columns

February 17, 2013

Scott Underwood: Beware the spinners of news

I received a phone call a few weeks ago from a man who was upset about an Associated Press story published in The Herald Bulletin. The article, he said, contained misinformation about the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The shootings, he was convinced, had been done with a pistol, not with a semi-automatic rifle, as the AP article stated.

“You media take something that is wrong and you keep repeating it,” he complained. “Why don’t you do your research and get it right?”

Now, I was fairly certain from reading a variety of news accounts that a semi-automatic weapon had in fact been used in the shooting. But I was also aware of other reports suggesting that a pistol had been used.

“We trust The Associated Press to go to the right sources to get facts straight,” I told the caller. “And we don’t really have the resources to fact check AP stories. The AP isn’t perfect, and we do occasionally find mistakes. So, I’ll tell you what: I’ll do some research, and I’ll let you know what I find. If the article was wrong, we’ll run a correction.”

As I suspected, my research turned up several stories and video in which Lt. J. Paul Vance of the Connecticut State Police reiterated that a semi-automatic rifle was used in the shootings. In fact, Vance was seeking to debunk persistent rumors that a pistol or pistols (also found at the scene) had been used.

Now, it could be that Vance is wrong about the weapon used. He says he’s absolutely sure the rifle that was recovered was used. But humans, even when they’re trained to investigate shooting scenes, could be mistaken – or even untruthful.

However, Vance, as the spokesperson for the investigating team, is the most dependable source the world has in this particular case. And reports from autopsies later confirmed the use of the semi-automatic rifle in the shootings.

So, I returned the call to the irate reader to let him know what I had found. He listened quietly and gave me a few “yeah, buts”. In the end, though, he acknowledged that the state police were the best source to assess what had happened at the scene.

As you’ve surmised, this reader was duped by rogue Internet reports. Some, no doubt, were politically motivated to change or question the story to gain an advantage in the gun-control discussion that followed the school shootings. Others just wanted to generate more website traffic.

More than ever, it can be difficult to discern who is merely delivering the news and who is trying to spin it. The best source of information is often the official source closest to the event, and that’s the one we at The Herald Bulletin generally trust most.

Special sections

Keep an eye out for interesting special sections coming up soon in The Herald Bulletin. On Feb. 27, we’ll publish our annual medical directory, with information to help you get healthy and stay healthy. The next day, our Best of Madison County section, announcing the winners of the annual reader survey, will be published.

Editor Scott Underwood’s column appears Mondays. Contact him at scott.underwood@heraldbulletin.com or 640-4845.

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