Sunday, January 9, 2011

Shooting in Tucson shows the weakness of US media; NPR News executive editor apologizes for false report

For me, yesterday was all about staying glued to the television and my iPad as I followed the news about the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), and the deaths of six other individuals in Tucson, Arizona. The task of following the news was made all the harder by the decision my the major networks to relegate the news to their cable channels -- assuming they had a cable news channel -- and the fact that the major newspapers, websites and radio news networks could not rely on the metro daily newspaper for leadership.

The Arizona Daily Star, a Lee Enterprises newspaper, was slow to report the incident on its website, eventually adding a banner on its home page. (Its web site design really is rather antiquated.)

The difficulty in reporting the news was evident on CNN's reliance on a Safeway employee's eyewitness account and little else. Nonetheless, CNN as probably the best source for news until MSNBC began to catch up. As for Fox News, they seemed early on to sense that part of the theme of this story was going to be their online hosts partisan rhetoric as they almost immediately began to explain to its audience that Rep. Giffords was a Blue Dog Democrat, as if it would have been a non-story had she been a more liberal member of Congress.

The real concern among media outlets will be the apparent gaffe by NPR. It was credited with the news that the member of the House had been killed in the attack, and many news outlets quickly repeated the report -- sometimes crediting NPR as the source, sometimes simply downplaying the source.
At the first word that NPR had said Rep. Giffords was dead I began going from website to website to see who was picking this up, and whether they could, in fact, confirm the report. The L.A. Times quickly wrote a headline with the report, while Talking Points Memo did as well, though making sure they reporting NPR as the source. Eventually most of the major news sites posted headlines that said Rep. Giffords was dead. But not the New York Times.

Both the NYT and Huffington Post were quick to create live blogs to allow readers to follow the news. I do not know if Huffington Post ran a false headline, but the NYT certainly did not. It's need to get independent confirmation was both wise and the professional approach to take. In a breaking news environment like yesterday, being first is not important -- the news will move too fast.

Just minutes ago Dick Meyer, executive editor of NPR News, posted an apology on its website:

In the course of reporting on the tragic events in Tucson on Saturday, NPR broadcast erroneous information in our 2:01 p.m. Eastern newscast, saying that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona had been shot and killed. That information briefly appeared on and was contained in an e-mail news alert sent to subscribers of that service. Thankfully, Rep. Giffords is alive today, though sadly other victims of the shootings are not. This was a serious and grave error. Corrections and properly updated reports were issued within minutes.

Meyer goes on: On behalf of NPR News, I apologize for this mistake to the family of Rep. Giffords, to the families of everyone affected by the shootings, to our listeners and to our readers.
Personally, I was taken aback by the unprofessionalism shown by many web properties that were quick to pass on NPR's report and that then allowed their readers to post over the top reactions to the news. Some of the fault lay with editors, others with those that monitor comments, I suppose.

Talking Points Memo, in particular, appears to be willing to post just about anything -- including a story that has the headline Don't Jump to Conclusions -- apparently posted without any sense of irony at all.

Lost Remote this morning posted the claim that the first report on Twitter that said the Congresswoman had been killed originated with Reuters. According to Steve Safran, Reuters took down the report, but by then NPR and BBC News had both reported the same news (while NPR's site posted the claim, I did not see the same thing at the BBC).

According to Meyer's online apology, NPR got its information from "two different governmental sources, including a source in the Pima County Sheriff's Department". Others, of course, got their information from NPR, and without any independent confirmation were willing to blast headlines that proved to be false.