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Editorial: Facts should not be withheld

A child lines up with firefighters outside the funeral for school shooting victim Daniel Gerard Barden,at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown, Conn., Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012.  According to firefighters, Daniel wanted to be a firefighter when he grew up and they honored him at the service. Gunman Adam Lanza opened fire killing 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown before killing himself on Friday. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

A child lines up with firefighters outside the funeral for school shooting victim Daniel Gerard Barden,at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown, Conn., Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012. According to firefighters, Daniel wanted to be a firefighter when he grew up and they honored him at the service. Gunman Adam Lanza opened fire killing 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown before killing himself on Friday. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Purchase photo reprints »

The media made mistakes last week in the rush to deliver facts about the massacre of 26 children and teachers in Newtown, Conn. Despite initial errors of identity, the practice of naming the person believed to be responsible for such horror is essential. Amid the grief, some suggested that rewards a killer. It serves the truth.

As the tragedy unfolded over the course of the day Dec. 14, multiple news outlets made claims that were just plain wrong.

Reporters repeatedly said Nancy Lanza, the mother of the shooter, was a teacher at the school. They said she was killed in her classroom. They said the name of the suspected shooter was Ryan Lanza, who was, in fact, Adam Lanza’s innocent brother. They said Adam was being held for questioning as a possible second shooter. These assertions all turned out to be wrong.

And that violates journalism’s bedrock principle of accuracy. As the facts came into clearer view, newspapers and television stations corrected the errors, as they should have.

But in the days after the shooting, an argument appeared repeatedly on social media sites and even on professional broadcast news programs that the media ought not to name the shooter.

The impulse behind this seems to be a belief that naming the person responsible for such horrifying acts of violence gives the shooter the attention he wants. There was also the contention that naming the shooter glorifies the killer and trivializes the great loss of life he caused.

We think this is a misguided attempt to fix one thing that isn’t wrong with news reports. Reporters for print and broadcast must report facts as they know them — and that includes providing the public with the best information authorities have. This is neither glorification nor sensationalizing. It is simply reporting the truth.

The media needs to do some hard thinking about how it can hold fast to accuracy in this age of 24-hour news cycles and unrelenting pressure to stay ahead of the information-sharing that goes on in social media.

Granted, news reports are sometimes wrong because — as happened in some instances in Newtown — reporters get incorrect information from their sources.

At the very least, in a rapidly changing situation such as was the case in Newtown, all reporters should have taken extra care to qualify some of what they reported as not yet fully corroborated.

And certainly, all news reporters should reflect on how to report such tragedies in ways that are sensitive to those who are most aggrieved. We believe most reporters have shown restraint and respect for the families of the victims of this terrible tragedy in Newtown.

Still, talk about not naming the shooter should be abandoned immediately. Reporters can’t change the facts and should never seek to deny what is real. The best they can do is report it carefully and accurately.

That is no small thing, because in order for a society to fix what’s wrong, it first must take an unflinching look at what is real.

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