Mistakes in the first hours

Initial reporting on the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Democrat from Arizona’s Eighth District, was riddled with the kind of quick-to-judgment errors that often flow in the aftermath of mass shootings and disasters. As Craig Silverman reported on his Regret the Error website, several major news outlets—NPR, Reuters, and CNN among them—had Tweeted in the immediate aftermath of the shooting that Giffords had been killed. According to Silverman’s timeline, NPR was first to pronounce Giffords dead, an announcement which was retweeted by other outlets and their followers; others, such as The New York Times, published similar reports on their websites, but quickly changed them as it surfaced that Giffords was alive. (Poynter has another thorough summary of how the inaccurate reports unfolded.)

Responding on Twitter to Mediaite’s Rachel Sklar and to June Cross, a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, the Times’s Patrick LaForge acknowledged that his paper’s story had been updated, and added, not unreasonably, that people should “Give the guy juggling the flaming torches a break.” NPR media reporter David Folkenflik echoed that sentiment responding on Twitter to those raising questions about the error: “It’s ahistorical to think initial reports in earlier incidents were uniformly accurate, tho journos should be accountable.” And then: “But to say sources—even seemingly authoritative sources—can’t themselves get things wrong in the heat of moment ignores reality.” NPR spokeswoman Anna Christopher explained the outlet’s error: it had based its pronouncement on information coming from the Pima County Sherrif’s office and a congressman’s office. [UPDATE: As noted in the comments section below, Sklar was not criticizing the Times but noted the changed post on her Twitter feed, where she was following the unfolding coverage. Sklar also noted on Twitter that the gunman’s motives were unknown.]

Overnight Saturday the errors continued, with reports that Giffords had woken in the hospital. This “POLITICO Breaking News” update landed in my inbox at 10.59pm…

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is awake in her hospital room, several local media stations reported Saturday night. One station reports she recognized her husband, Mark Kelly, a Navy captain and veteran astronaut.

And this one arrived on Sunday morning…

Reports that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords woke up and was speaking after being treated for her gunshot wound to the head are inaccurate, according to a spokeswoman at the hospital where she’s staying.

As of the time of reporting, top sources on the initial media mistakes being made around the assassination attempt are: Craig Silverman’s impressive Twitter timeline and analysis at Regret the Error; Politico’s Keach Hagey’s report, which notes, interestingly, that Sarah Palin got caught up in the erroneous reporting on her Facebook page; Julie Moss’s reporting at Poynter; Michael Calderone’s reflective piece at Yahoo!; and Dan Gillmor’s call for a “slow-news approach” to breaking news reporting on Salon.

Avoiding mistakes to come

The misreporting that surrounded Saturday’s shooting is worrying and regrettable. It is also, in the age of the TV-blogopshere-Twittersphere triple threat, somewhat inevitable. We have sympathy for the legacy outlet that is misinformed by a sheriff’s office; and for the guy or girl sitting at his or her desk at another outlet, facing intense pressure to update an evolving blog report and not miss anything that might break. It’s almost pointless to lay individual blame. The problem feels more systemic, and we can see a healthy debate ensuing in the coming weeks about the nature of breaking news reporting, the role of Twitter in that reporting, and the need, perhaps, for something similar to what Gillmor calls a “slow-news approach.” We will be interested and keep our eye on it.

What we have less sympathy for are the other rushes to judgment we saw over the weekend. The rush, from nearly all sections of the media, to associate the actions of twenty-two-year-old Jared Lee Loughner with the kinds of heated political rhetoric we saw during the health care reform debate in 2009 and leading up to the November 2010 midterms. The rush to see the two as somehow inextricably connected—an association that underpinned the special comment made by MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann Saturday night, which has been shared widely and lauded since.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.