Consider the following equation:

A fast-breaking highly charged emotional story.

Plus mistaken identity.

Plus a news media determined to be the first to break the story.

Plus the unprecedented speed and reach of the Internet.

Plus the potential of vigilantes willing to take “justice” into their own hands.

All that equals the potential of some innocent person(s) being seriously hurt or worse.


It could have been Ryan Lanza as a result of the horrific Newtown, Ct. school shootings last Friday. Or it could have been David and Elaine McClain in the Treyvon Martin case this past spring.

For Ryan Lanza, (not to be confused yet again with his killer brother, Adam) Friday was a very bad day.

He found out that his mother is dead. His estranged brother killed 26 innocents, including 20 in a suburban Connecticut kindergarten. And to top it off,  law enforcement fingered the wrong Lanza…Ryan, not Adam.

And that meant the media, including the Associated Press with its international reach, had the wrong Lanza as well. The word spread like bonfire across cyberspace and the airwaves that Ryan Lanza had horrifically killed 27 innocents. In reality, Ryan Lanza was working in the Manhattan office of accounting firm, Ernst & Young, approximately 60 miles from Newtown, Connecticut. He was just doing his job.

Lanza’s social media sites turned ugly, real threatening ugly, real fast. He was forced to leave work out of fear for his well being.

“The Associated Press, relying on a law enforcement official who turned out to be mistaken, initially reported Ryan Lanza was the shooter,” MSN News reported. “Many other media outlets also reported as such, citing law enforcement officials…A friend of Lanza’s, former Jersey Journal newspaper staff writer Brett Wilshe, told the AP he ‘got really scared’ when he began hearing the media reports about Ryan Lanza, and sent him a message on Facebook asking what was going on and if he was OK.”

In defense of the media, it is only as good as the information they are provided. Not being as charitable, the media is always in such a bowels-in-an-uproar tizzy to be the first to break the news. In a fast breaking high-import, emotional story media types, particularly television networks, are often guilty of breaking the wrong news and having to correct the record.

And when that happens in the 21st Century the mistake is instantaneously compounded on social media with its global reach? Are we are running the risk that someone or a modern-day lynch mob will take justice into their own hands, even if the mistake is quickly corrected? Is any innocent person truly safe? Have you ever Googled your own name to check out the affairs of others who have the same name?


Earlier this year, film director/producer Spike Lee tweeted the address of the McClains, a law-abiding couple in their 70s, to his almost 240,000 Twitter followers. He was “relaying” the word that alleged Martin shooter George Zimmerman lived at that address. Wrong. The vigilantes went there seeking “justice.” The McClains were forced into hiding.

Some other questions come to mind: What if the address was correct? What if Zimmerman really lived there? What did Lee want the recipients of his tweets to do with this information?

Lee subsequently apologized to the McClains and he wrote them a big check. He asked everyone to leave this poor couple alone in peace.

For the media, the words of the Wizard of Westwood John Wooden come to mind: “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”

Certainly, the lawyers for big media with deep pockets (e.g., ABC-Disney; NBC-Comcast/GE; CBS-Viacom; CNN-Time-Warner; Fox-News Corporation) must be concerned about their potential liability in mistaken identity cases. Even though it is difficult to successfully sue these major corporations, juries may not be so accommodating when someone loses their life as a result of the frantic rush to be first with the wrong information.

For public relations professionals, it means that brands and reputations can be quickly besmirched in a case of mistaken identity. Vigilance is now a 24/7/365 undertaking in our digital world.

Maybe, the networks and wire services should be a little less braggadocio when it comes to being first. The reality is that a media outlet will not always be first; some other organization will be first from time-to-time. How about being right? How about being accurate? How about double checking? Heck, how about triple checking?

“Are you sure it was Ryan Lanza?”

“Does George Zimmerman really live here?” (Yes, Spike Lee is not media, but the point about checking still applies)

Just asking an extra question or two or three may preclude someone from going into hiding, from being harassed at work, or even some other unfortunate event that triggers big-time headlines…and even a big-time legal judgment.