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February 22, 2013

Emotion can get in theway of finding facts

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The Daily Star

---- — “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but they are not entitled to their own facts.” — The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

The particular model of weapon used by Adam Lanza during the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., might seem like a relatively minor detail in the debate over gun violence in the United States.

But it rises to much greater importance when it sparks a furious debate over whether we can get even the most basic facts correct. Such was the case this week when more than one an angry letter-writer accused The Daily Star of taking part in a massive cover-up, suggesting that the Bushmaster XM15-E2S assault rifle Lanza brought to Sandy Hook was left in his car and never actually used.

Letters could be dismissed with a simple call stating “sorry, your letter is incorrect and will not appear in our newspaper.” But this problem isn’t limited to just some letters to us. Since December, a chorus of manipulative, agenda-driven voices has lurked in the shadows of the blogosphere, feverishly churning out chain emails in an attempt to poison the gun debate before the facts get a chance to take root.

One can only assume that such trash was responsible for deceiving our poor letter-writer, since no credible information exists whatsoever suggesting Lanza never used his assault rifle during the Sandy Hook massacre. Those who disagree should pay attention to Connecticut State Police Lt. J. Paul Vance, whose Jan. 24 media conference covered by — among others — the Connecticut Post should have driven a stake through the heart of such misinformation.

“It’s all these conspiracy theorists that are trying to mucky up these waters,” Vance said. “There’s no doubt that the rifle was used solely to kill 26 people in that school. I personally articulated that probably a dozen times in Newtown.”

Perhaps the confusion arises from initial inaccurate media reports and the fact that police recovered an Izhmash Canta-12 assault shotgun from the trunk of Lanza’s car. But this is no excuse; reaching a firm conclusion that Lanza didn’t use his rifle should require firm evidence, not rumor.

As newspaper editors, we’re often told that we need to be more careful about getting our facts straight. Such concerns are wholly valid, especially in an era where news sources are multiplying without necessarily becoming more credible.

But readers, too, need to hold up their end of the bargain, and learn how to distinguish fact from fancy. One could argue this problem is a much greater threat to the American way of life than gun violence. But if some readers’ confirmation bias is too strong for them to acknowledge facts that don’t fit their preconceived opinions, it’s entirely their own fault.