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'Conflicting facts' about Newtown shootings were really unverified rumors

Posted by Dante Ramos  December 17, 2012 11:30 AM

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By Juliette Kayyem

There is a saying in emergency management circles that is worth repeating today as the news of the horrors in Newtown, Conn., gets revised, revisited, and completely rewritten. It goes something like this: When the phone call comes in at 2 a.m., go back to bed for 15 more minutes at least. Chances are whatever you were told in the breathless initial moments of a tragedy is false; and if it is true, you may need that extra 15 minutes of sleep.

Of course, it doesn’t work that way as we saw even on Friday. It was the prompt arrival of first responders that seems to have finally led Adam Lanza to take his own life. He had enough bullets left to cause more misery -- hard as that is to imagine after the death of 26, including 20 boys and girls just 6 or 7 years old.

But as I watched too much television and listened to too much radio over the weekend, I recalled that cautionary saying about the unreliable content of initial reports. As a former homeland security official who now writes opinion columns, I found myself wondering: Why do so many media outlets say that there are “conflicting facts” about what unfolded? It is wrong to describe unverified fragments of information as "facts." Actual facts are not conflicting.

The truth of each story about -- for instance -- the shooter's mother, her status at the school (or lack thereof), the order of deaths, or the heroism and courage people at the school showed is not likely to be known for some time. Over time, each nugget of information that is unearthed must be challenged and then ultimately put into a narrative that makes more sense than some notion that everything is “conflicting.” Yet, especially early on, the demand for facts places an unbelievable burden on authorities trying to investigate to come up with some narrative where there are none; the failure to do so does not mean that authorities are hiding the message. It means that they need that proverbial extra 15 minutes.

Time is not on a reporter's side, I understand. But to say that changes in a story suggest “conflicting facts” is just not accurate -- and allows misconceptions to persist. For years, until the full story was told, we thought the Columbine killers were goth figures, bullied throughout high school. The truth was nothing like that, and it takes time to figure this all out.

But there is another reason why the “conflicting facts” narrative was disconcerting: It made me (and likely others) focus on the minute details of an incident that can't be grasped through its details.. A gun-crazed mother, a difficult son, a recent divorce, mental disorder; etc, etc, etc. Here’s my takeway: So what? All of these little pieces of information have the capacity to drown out the big picture: A young man, with many guns, killed too many people. The only detail that matters is the number 26.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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