At 1:01 p.m. EST last Saturday, NPR’s Newscast unit broke the story that an Arizona congresswoman had been gunned down in a Tucson shopping center.
NPR got a tip. The wife of Arizona Public Media’s news director, Peter Michaels, was at the Safeway when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others had just been shot. She phoned her husband who rushed to the scene, and called NPR, where he used to be newscast director.
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was in critical condition Sunday after being shot in the head.
Giffords “was doing a ‘Congress on the Corner’ event at the grocery market here,” reported Michaels live at the scene, “and a gunman came up to the desk and just started shooting at people.”
An hour later, whatever “glory” NPR may have gotten from its scoop, if that matters anymore, evaporated when NPR mistakenly reported Giffords had died.
This error occurred two days after the head of NPR’s news division, Ellen Weiss, resigned in the wake of a report critical of NPR’s handling in firing news analyst Juan Williams. Though this latest incident wasn’t related to the Williams fiasco, it happened within a supercharged atmosphere of renewed attention to NPR and its occasional foibles.
At 2:01, newscaster Barbara Klein said: “Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona has been shot and killed during a public event in Tucson, AZ.”
Klein, who reads the news, did not identify where NPR got that information.
An e-mail alert sent to NPR subscribers followed at 2:06 p.m. supposedly confirming Giffords’ death.
Then NPR’s social media editor Andy Carvin tweeted at 2:12 p.m. that a gunman had killed Giffords. About 2 million people follow NPR tweets.
The incorrect news was also posted on “The Two-Way,” NPR’s newsblog. It was attributed to an unnamed source in the Pima County Sheriff’s office. However, Two-Way blogger Mark Memmott handled the news just right, continually cautioning that the story was erupting in the midst of panic and pandemonium and nothing was certain.
The Twittersphere exploded with scores retweeting Giffords’ supposed death, exemplifying how news travels in a nanosecond in today’s media world before anyone has time to process it.
“Within a few minutes, I started seeing other news orgs either holding back on reporting it as well as people on Twitter asking me about it,” wrote Carvin in an excellent post on Lostremote.com explaining what happened with Twitter. “About 25 minutes later, I saw that the NPR site had changed the headline from saying she had been killed to that she had been shot.”
At 2:36 p.m. Carvin tweeted, “There are conflicting reports about whether she was killed.” And by the 3 p.m. newscast, NPR went back to reporting Giffords’ condition as unknown.
At the point the hospital confirmed Giffords was in surgery around 2:30 p.m, NPR should have done two things: sent out another e-mail alert correcting its mistake and when it next broadcast at 3 p.m., it should have said that NPR mistakenly reported Giffords’ death and given the new, correct information.Neither of these things was done that day.
The next day, Sunday, NPR’s executive editor, Dick Meyer, apologized on npr.org, and an apology aired twice during the 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday newscasts.
“I would describe this as good people doing their best hustling with great speed, who made an honest mistake,” said Robert Garcia, who runs the Newscast Unit, but was not consulted about the 2 p.m. newscast.
The false death report was repeated by others – including CNN, Fox News, The New York Times – with NPR as the source. Within minutes CNN and Fox claimed to also have independent sources.
“NPR’s reputation as a news organization would carry weight, particularly since television news organizations knew NPR was more likely to have people close to the scene,” wrote AP’s David Bauder.
Bauder noted that within 30 minutes of NPR’s report, all three cable networks bannered the headline that Giffords had died. CBS and NBC did special reports, and Reuters also repeated the mistake, crediting NPR.
It’s not unusual in a chaotic, fast-breaking story with high interest like this shooting – where six died and 14 were wounded – for flawed information to get out. It’s understandable, though not acceptable.
But to report a death, incorrectly, is a serious, serious error and may have caused untold grief and pain for many who know Giffords.
Criticism of NPR was quickly forthcoming on Twitter, in comments and e-mails.
Patrick Ruffini, a Republican social media strategist, tweeted: “I’d like to see @NPR explain how they got the info that Giffords had died. Might help diagnose future problems in ‘fog of war’ situations.”
@ztruth: NPR changed their article that first reported Congresswoman Giffords died. So, this could be good news. NPR may have made a big mistake. (14:38)
So what happened?
At 1:50 p.m., KJZZ news director Mark Moran in Phoenix, who is well-known to NPR editors and often on NPR newscasts, called the unit. He said “sources” within the Pima County Sheriff’s department had confirmed Giffords’ death, said Garcia.
With 10 minutes to spare, Newscast producer Diane Waugh began scrambling to get the story on air – if NPR could get a second source. As is common in newsrooms, NPR has a two-source rule, requiring two, reliable and independent confirmations before news is reported. Three is even better.
Relying on just one source – especially an anonymous one – can often lead to false or misleading reports in fast-breaking news. One danger, for example, is one source getting its information from another source.
“About a minute or so prior to the newscast, NPR correspondent Audie Cornish told Diane that she received confirmation as well” from a congressman’s office, said Garcia. “Barbara Klein was told to open the newscast with word that the congresswoman had been shot and killed. We immediately went live to Mark Moran – who reported she was reportedly shot in the head and there were multiple ‘other deaths.’ ”
NPR had two sources, though neither was identified in any way, and should have been. And the newscast should have put the news in context, explaining that a tragedy had just occurred, the story was changing quickly, and this was what NPR knew at that moment.
A critical question for each source was: “How do you know that?”
It turns out that neither source had accurate, first-hand information. The congressional source had heard it in a meeting on Capitol Hill, where undoubtedly rumors and half truths were flying around.
Moran said his information came from “law enforcement sources, a KJZZ reporter and very early reports on NPR.org.”
“I felt supremely confident in the two sources I had but unfortunately those sources were relying on other sources, almost like a game of telephone tag,” said Moran. “Unfortunately in this case the stakes were extremely high and I’m sick about it.”
Typically, in a big, fast-breaking news story like this, senior editors should have been consulted before going on air with devastating news based on sources NPR would not name.
But that didn’t happen.
“A key issue in this incident is that the decision was not cleared at the appropriate level,” said Meyer, NPR’s executive editor. “That approval process itself should slow things down and of course, bring a more senior head to the deliberation. If followed, I think this error would have been avoided.”
Newscast head Garcia noted that in reporting a death, the best valid confirmation comes from the hospital or family – people with first-hand knowledge.
“The upside of having information first is fleeting,” said Garcia. “The downside is enormous, painful. Everyone feels awful.”
While NPR made a significant mistake that dinged its credibility, it should be commended for quickly apologizing and being transparent. Rather than hurting NPR’s credibility, taking responsibility for the mistake should enhance it.
Unfortunately, however, many people will remember the mistake and not the correction.
This column was originally published on on NPR.org on Jan. 11, 2011.