The Uvalde school massacre is shaping up as a massive police scandal. Officers failed to respond as they had been trained to do. We’re going to learn a lot more in the days and weeks to come, but for now, I want to comment on one narrow aspect — the media’s dependence on official sources in such situations. There’s been a lot of criticism on social media about the press’ reliance on police in the initial coverage. Adam Johnson put it this way:
Jay Rosen offered a more nuanced critique.
There’s no doubt that journalists rely too heavily on police sources who may or may not be telling the truth. Sources lie, especially when the truth would make them look bad. I have no reason to think that police officers are more likely to lie than anyone else. But they’re not less likely to lie, either. I’ve written about the problem of “the police giving us good stories in return for our not asking too many questions.”
But I don’t think the Uvalde shootings are an example of journalistic malfeasance. In the immediate aftermath of a terrible breaking-news situation, official sources are often the only ones available. You pass along what they have to say and you keep reporting. That’s what happened in Uvalde. Yes, we learned that the original police account was wrong, and that officials may have been flat-out lying. And it was the press from whom we learned about those falsehoods.
It’s an imperfect process. But the press did not blindly accept what they were being told. They kept digging, and that’s why the official narrative has fallen apart.