Monday, December 17, 2012

Why were unidentified sources permitted to ‘diagnose’ Newtown, Conn. shooter?

Why were unidentified sources permitted to “diagnose” Adam Lanza, identified as the gunman in Friday’s Connecticut school shooting?

I learned Friday as events unfolded that autism and the tragedy were being linked via a statement issued in response to the Newtown, Conn. shooting by the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN). I waited before commenting on my blog until I could cite specific media and usages.

The opportunity arrived when I viewed a piece last updated Saturday on the Lake County Record-Bee website. As summarized by Adrienne LaFrance, a writer for Digital First Media:
“A family member told investigators that he had ‘a form of autism,’ according to The Washington Post, which cited a law enforcement official. …
“The Associated Press also reported that Lanza is believed to have suffered from a personality disorder, citing a law enforcement official apparently briefed on the investigation.”
The account raised two related concerns: why was this second- or third-hand information attributed to anonymous sources?

Steve Buttry, digital transformation editor for Digital First Media, argues that the bar should be set high for confidentiality; journalists should “always drive a hard bargain before agreeing to withhold a source’s name.”

As Buttry explained in a March 15, 2012 post, “The first point of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is ‘Seek truth and report it.’ You should only grant confidentiality in a quest to find the truth. Granting confidentiality to cowards too often leads to reporting of lies.”

Among Buttry’s standards for granting confidentiality: “If you are powerful, I am highly reluctant to grant you confidentiality and won’t grant you confidentiality to disparage a less powerful person.”

In that context, the use of unnamed sources by the Washington Post and Associated Press grossly failed Buttry’s test. What value did this information serve except to induce prejudice against people on the autism spectrum or with other types of disabilities? We are minorities in a society that favors the perspective of neurotypicals.

CNN, in a story updated today, at least named a source of information:
“Russ Hanoman, a friend of Lanza’s mother, told CNN that Lanza had Asperger’s syndrome and that he was ‘very withdrawn emotionally.”
The emphasis in CNN writer Miriam Falco’s account is upon national autism organizations cautioning “against speculation about a link between violence” and autism or Asperger’s syndrome.
“While the motive for this crime is still unknown and may never be fully understood, what is clear, according to experts, is that autism cannot be blamed.
“‘There is absolutely no evidence or any reliable research that suggests a linkage between autism and planned violence,’ the Autism Society said in a statement. ‘To imply or suggest that some linkage exists is wrong and is harmful to more than 1.5 million law-abiding, nonviolent and wonderful individuals who live with autism each day.’”
From ASAN on Friday:
“Autistic Americans and individuals with other disabilities are no more likely to commit violent crime than non-disabled people. In fact, people with disabilities of all kinds, including autism, are vastly more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. Should the shooter in today’s shooting prove to in fact be diagnosed on the autism spectrum or with another disability, the millions of Americans with disabilities should be no more implicated in his actions than the non-disabled population is responsible for those of non-disabled shooters.”

1 comment:

  1. This post was expanded this morning to cite points raised by Steve Buttry concerning the use of unidentified sources. Their use in this situation bothers me both as a journalist and a woman on the autism spectrum. Clearly, newsroom diversity must include cognitive differences.


Robust debate and even unusual opinions are encouraged, but please stay on-topic and be respectful. Comments are subject to review for personal attacks or insults, discriminatory statements, hyperlinks not directly related to the discussion and commercial spam.