The media coverage of the Alex Jones-Sandy Hook lawsuits

In addition to its role as messenger, the media acts as an accountability measure by pitting objective facts against false claims. This approach not only helps inform the public about what’s true and what isn’t, but it can also teach people to be more discerning.

However, when news outlets distort information in ways similar to those who disseminate false claims, they become part of the problem they’re attempting to correct. The coverage of the lawsuits against Infowars’ Alex Jones by Sandy Hook parents provides such an example, and it shows the fine line between accountability and misrepresentation.

In this case, media outlets shed light on some of Jones’ false claims, principally his claim that the 2012 shooting in Newtown was a “hoax” perpetrated by the government to expand gun control laws. Yet in doing so, the outlets also labeled Jones in ways that could misrepresent him or his views. Here’s a look at some of Jones’ arguments, the coverage and its potential pitfalls.

Pointing out flaws in Jones’ arguments

If you watch two of Jones’ most recent segments on Sandy Hook — Alex Jones Final Statement on Sandy Hook and Sandy Hook Vampires Exposed (“vampires” is what he calls “mainstream media” outlets) — you’ll find bias and faulty reasoning in his arguments. For instance, Jones described the actions of one of the parents before and during a televised interview.

In a video clip (part of which is included in the “final statement” segment), the man can be seen speaking and smiling, or possibly laughing with others immediately before the interview. As soon as he steps in front of the cameras, he appears to be overcome with emotion. Jones said the contrast in his emotional expression is evidence that he’s an actor pretending to be a grieving father. Does this necessarily follow?

Grieving and coping mechanisms are unique to each person, and there are numerous ways one could explain the father’s behavior in a way that contradicts the “acting” allegation, and rather portrays his responses as human, given the circumstances. This is but one example in which Jones hastily jumped to conclusions based on a few uncontested premises. He also didn’t explore other possibilities, which is often indicative of bias. For instance, the father may have been reminiscing about his child before speaking with reporters, or he may have been nervous about going on live television and was using humor to offset the nerves. Jones’ singular and narrowly-supported perspective, in this case, weakens his argument.

Jones also mentioned there have been several instances in which the government has either withheld information from the American public or outright misinformed it. It’d be naïve to think governments don’t misinform the public at times, or often — after all, we have evidence of this, for example with the Pentagon Papers. But it doesn’t follow logically that if the U.S. government has done so in the past, it must be the case with Sandy Hook. Furthermore, Jones didn’t support his conclusion that the shooting was “staged” by the government with data.

The four articles The Knife analyzed were explicit in that some of Jones’ claims about the shooting are false. However, few explained the shortcomings of his arguments. The New York Times wrote, “To bolster his false claims, he often cites news reports and video clips from the hours after the shooting that turned out to be incomplete or based on wrong information.”

But the article didn’t explain, for example, that when stories such as Sandy Hook break, it’s typical for information to be inconsistent and sometimes inaccurate, given witnesses’ heightened emotions and the fact that investigations are in an early stage. Jones pointed to these inconsistencies as evidence that the shooting was staged, and didn’t account for more obvious explanations about the origin of the errors.

The Times did provide a concise rebuttal to one of Jones’ claims regarding a video glitch that made a CNN anchor’s nose disappear. It stated: 

During that quick head movement, [Anderson] Cooper’s nose seems to disappear — evidence, Mr. Jones said, that the interview with [Sandy Hook parent] Ms. De La Rosa was conducted in a studio. In reality, the glitch is known as a compression artifact, a distortion that is common in video encoding.

The media could point out the bias or errors in logic in the information Jones provides. This would not only help readers become more discerning, but it would also avoid misrepresenting and possibly discrediting Jones and his views altogether, which is the topic of the next section.

Implications and labels

HuffPost described Jones’ talking points as “repeated lies and conspiratorial ravings.” These terms are subjective and dramatic — they’re spin. The language assumes he intends to deceive the public through his radio show and Infowars. Maybe he does, but that’s not objectively verifiable, and is therefore HuffPost’s subjective conclusion about him.

The outlet went on to write:

For the Sandy Hook parents, they just want the lies to stop. Even when Jones made an assurance he’d stop talking about it, that too was a lie. During a November 2016 broadcast, Jones said that if “children were lost at Sandy Hook, my heart goes out to each and every one of those parents.”

But he didn’t stop there: “The only problem is, I’ve watched a lot of soap operas, and I’ve seen actors before. And I know when I’m watching a movie and when I’m watching something real.”

The broadcast was titled “Alex Jones Final Statement on Sandy Hook.”

Less than a year later, in April 2017, Jones aired another segment. It was titled “Sandy Hook Vampires Exposed.”

This excerpt is misleading, suggesting Jones “made an assurance” that he’d stop questioning the shooting in that November broadcast, and that he went against his word by broadcasting the show the following spring. However, Jones didn’t make any such assurance in the November show — on the contrary, he said he planned to start re-investigating the incident. One might deduce from the segment’s title that it was Jones’ “final statement” on the incident, but again, that wasn’t explicit in the broadcast. His emphasis seemed to be directed at correcting the media’s misrepresentation of his statements, so “final” may be understood as “definitive” here. In any case, HuffPost’s implication portrays Jones as lying, but when you look at his statements, they don’t indicate he’ll stop questioning the story.

Suggesting Jones intends to deceive audiences is akin to labeling him a “liar” — the same term he’s used to discredit the media and Sandy Hook parents. Representing him this way can encourage people to dismiss what he has to say altogether, rather than critically evaluate the information he brings forward. Some of it is inaccurate and potentially damaging, as media outlets have noted, but he also raises some questions and points that may be worth considering, some of which are explored in the next section. Also, by not accurately pointing out Jones’ faulty reasoning, and instead favoring labels and implication, the media limits people’s understanding of the real problems in his reasoning.

What’s thrown out with the bathwater

If readers accept these labels, they may not consider some of the questions Jones has raised about Sandy Hook and other events — and some of them may be valid. For instance, he pointed out that related records were sealed and that, compared to similar shootings, the practice was “unprecedented.”

In 2013, Connecticut passed a bill that kept photos and documents from the shooting sealed and unaffected by Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) filings. The bill said their release would “constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of the victim or the victim’s surviving family members.” State Sen. Ed Meyer, who opposed the bill, reportedly said, “The suppression of horrific crimes committed on public property and recorded by public officials is not consistent with a free and open society,” and CNN reported that others expressed concerns that sealing the records would “limit freedom of information and hamper future investigations.” (The FBI unsealed some documents late last year, which provide insights into the shooter’s background and mindset.)

Jones questioned the state’s decision, saying it sealed the records “like it was more secret than the Manhattan Project.” In an Infowars segment, he compared the Newtown shooting to Columbine, noting that some information (including surveillance camera footage) from Columbine was released to the public. Regarding Sandy Hook’s sealed records, he said, “This has never been done in any other case.” While this may be a generalization, it might be useful to question what makes the Sandy Hook case different from others, as well as the effects of keeping the documents sealed.

Jones also noted that the school and the shooter’s home were demolished in 2014 and 2015, respectively, following complaints by the community. It’s understandable that both structures may have been difficult for parents and loved ones to encounter. Yet Jones suggested the demolitions may have destroyed additional evidence that could have been recovered from the sites. This may or may not be true, and is a determination that only law enforcement can make. But U.N. guidelines on “crime scene and physical evidence awareness” do state:

Lack of protective measures [regarding a crime scene] can result in the destruction of important evidence, and thus misdirect investigators and adversely influence the final result of the investigation. In the worst situation it may prevent the solution of the case or result in a wrong conclusion.

A Los Angeles Times article on how similar sites have been handled in the past notes that “unlike other disasters, mass shootings tend to leave the structures where they take place intact.” It seems the tendency isn’t to destroy the structures where shootings take place, so in a way, it’s a valid question to pose in the Sandy Hook case. Even after the investigation concluded, new questions could potentially arise. The question, of course, doesn’t invalidate the community’s concerns, which the L.A. Times wrote about: “...parents couldn’t imagine dropping off their children at the school again, even a renovated version.”

Posing questions such as these doesn’t negate that Sandy Hook happened — a point that’s often conflated. That is, sometimes the act of questioning is mistaken for denial, and is therefore censored or discouraged. In Jones’ case, it’s important to separate the false claims and denials he’s made from valid questions he’s posed. Lumping the two may throw out the baby with the bathwater.

We’re not defending Jones’ false claims, but rather the process of questioning, which can get lost in the mix. A periodic reevaluation of what we know and believe to be true isn’t necessarily destructive — in fact, it’s the basis of critical thinking and science (science keeps refining itself because it never stops questioning its premises and conclusions). Australian zoologist Konrad Lorenz is credited as saying, “It is a good morning exercise for a research scientist to discard a pet hypothesis every day before breakfast. It keeps him young.”

Human bias and fear can get in the way of questioning, especially when it pushes on preconceived notions, issues we’re invested in or even “established truths” — just look at Galileo, who was persecuted for heresy by promoting a heliocentric model of the universe at a time when no one would have it. Jones may be incorrect or disrespectful in some of his observations, but for a free society to remain free, the process of questioning shouldn’t be censored or discouraged. If anything, a more critical response is needed in cases like these.

What could accountability without misrepresentation look like?

Responsible journalists would stick to the facts, without adding drama, importing their own bias, implications or conclusions, or misrepresenting their sources. Considering Jones sometimes disseminates false claims, the most objective, perhaps honorable way of shedding light on the issue can be done by simply citing him, so the facts speak for themselves, rather than leading readers to that conclusion through opinion and other media distortions. Here’s an example of something HuffPost wrote, and how it could be reported differently: “[Infowars/Jones has a] practice of disseminating outright lies.”

Again, by calling the false claims “lies,” HuffPost suggested an intent to deceive. Jones could have this intent, but is this objectively known? Not at least by what he’s stated in his defense. So what’s left? The data of what he’s said. Here’s the gist of the contradictions, and how they could be reported in three steps.

1. Jones called Sandy Hook a “hoax” on several occasions.

A video compilation of his statements on the shooting shows him saying, “Sandy Hook is a synthetic, completely fake, with actors, in my view, manufacture.” It also shows him saying:

People just instinctively know that there’s a lot of fraud going on. But it took me about a year with Sandy Hook to come to grips with the fact that the whole thing was fake. I mean, even I couldn’t believe it! I knew they jumped on it, used the crisis, hyped it up. But then I did deep research, and my gosh, it just pretty much didn’t happen.

2. He later claimed the media took his statements out of context and misrepresented them. This is inconsistent with his previous claims.

In his “final statement” segment, Jones said:

When I sit there and read quotes of other people saying they believe it’s staged, the media knows full well they take that out of context and have me definitively saying it, when I’ve always said, “I don’t know what happened there, but it needs to be looked into.”

It’s possible Jones shifted his perspective from “hoax” to “I don’t know what happened,” but his later comment doesn’t account for the fact that he previously said the shooting was staged.

3. When confronted with the inconsistency, Jones didn’t acknowledge or rectify it.

In an interview with NBC News’ Megyn Kelly, she questioned Jones’ calling Sandy Hook a “hoax.” More than once, he responded that he was playing “devil’s advocate” in questioning the veracity of events. Kelly pressed the point, saying his claims were upsetting the victims’ families. In the interview, Jones didn’t answer Kelly, and she called him out on “dodging” the question.

Providing readers the unadulterated facts on what Jones did or didn’t say can help them independently decide the veracity and reliability of his statements on the matter, without being led or misled by the media.

Why does any of this matter?

One angle on First Amendment rights may be, “I’m free to say whatever I want, regardless of the effects on others.” You could call this “ultimate freedom,” but it’s not without consequences. Whatever we say or do, there are always consequences. With free speech comes great responsibility.

To confuse free speech with a free pass on consequences is an oversimplification, and possibly a misrepresentation of the constitutional privilege — it’s something the U.S. justice system grapples with constantly, especially in cases involving defamation, libel and hate speech. The question is, what’s the boundary between people expressing what they think versus an infringement on others’ rights? The Jones-Sandy Hook lawsuits provide a backdrop to explore these questions.

Jones seemingly hasn’t incited violence against the Sandy Hook parents, and it’s not logical to conclude that his broadcast compels people to do so. However, some people have reportedly harassed or issued death threats against the victims’ families, reportedly citing Infowars’ depiction of events. These actions are destructive and have been rightfully prosecuted by law enforcement. The New York Times wrote:

Last June, a Florida woman who believes the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax was sentenced to five months in prison for making death threats against [Sandy Hook parent] Mr. Pozner in voicemail messages and emails.

In this regard, it’s not responsible to sweep Jones’ or others’ participation under the rug. Through Infowars, Jones holds a public forum that reaches at least 2 million people through YouTube alone. Among his subscribers, he holds a type of influence and authority. Whether he exercises those privileges responsibly is, in a way, what the latest lawsuits are questioning.

It’s important to consider the platform and authority each person holds when communicating with others. In this sense, the parents suing Jones may have a valid case, which will be decided on by the courts. It should not be preemptively decided on by the media, and news outlets negate their responsibility as unbiased messengers by favoring one outcome over another in their reporting — which is the basis of the media distortion we found in these articles. In other words, the outlets assume Jones indeed violated the parents’ rights and that the lawsuits will succeed, and this is a main reason they received high slant scores. 

The coverage leaves journalists and readers alike with questions that aren’t easy to answer, but that ideally would be carefully considered:

  • Does Jones have a right to broadcast his views as he has?

  • Should those views be censored because they’re offensive to some of the victims’ families?

  • Should they be censored if certain individuals (such as the woman in Florida) incite violence towards the families?

  • In attempting to correct Jones’ false claims on Sandy Hook, is it right for the media to misrepresent him or his views?

  • If the media holds Jones accountable, who should hold the media accountable if it’s not objective in its coverage?

  • Can “free speech” exist without responsibility or consequences?

  • How do we ultimately uphold free speech in a responsible, civilized way?

Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media