Politics Begins at the First Shot

Initial errors aren’t the biggest problems in reporting on congresswoman’s attempted assassination

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.

We do not object to the condemnation of violence and violent rhetoric; such a sentiment feels absolutely appropriate. But the association between Saturday’s shooting and recent “violent political rhetoric”—which has in the last two years come to specifically mean the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, birthers, etc.—is so far unproven. At this time, there is no evidence that Loughner targeted Giffords for any clear or clearly understandable political reasons or that he was inspired by “vitriol” in political rhetoric. In its report addressing these very connections, the Times is quick to note that “the exact motivations of the suspect in the shootings remained unclear,” before exploring the issue of politically motivated violence.

The temptation to jump to the conclusion that Loughner is something of a result of the last two years of political tumult is strong. A number of factors feed the narrative:

- Sarah Palin’s map of targeted congressional races leading up the midterms included Giffords’s, with the controversial crosshairs graphic focused on the Congresswoman’s district because of her vote for health care reform. It will likely dint Palin’s reputation too, and add fuel to those looking to dump Saturday’s incident at her feet, that the graphic has been scrubbed from the site since the shooting.

- Giffords had already been the target of what appeared to be anti-health care right wing attacks. Her district office was vandalized last March, the glass front door shattered by attackers following an uptick in heated rhetoric directed at her and other members of Congress supporting reform. She discussed the attack and the nature of heated political rhetoric on MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown that month in a video the network played repeatedly Saturday, firming the associations between the incident and the shooting, despite anchors repeatedly noting they were not intending that connection. In a previous meet-and-greet event at another Arizona Safeway, Giffords’ staff called police after one attendee dropped a gun.

- Pima Country Sherriff Clarence W. Dupnik’s eloquent and powerful press conference on Saturday pushed the debate over political rhetoric directly to the fore in a way that was heralded by liberals and condemned by some conservatives as “reckless.” Dupnik argued that “vitriol” had contributed to the incident and made pointed remarks about the state of politics in Arizona. From the Washington Post’s report on the resonance of Dupnik’s remarks:

“There’s reason to believe that this individual may have a mental issue. And I think people who are unbalanced are especially susceptible to vitriol,” he said during his televised remarks. “People tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences.”

“The anger the hatred the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous, and unfortunately I think Arizona has become sort of the capital,” he said. “We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”

The politically charged comments rang familiar to those who had read Dupnik’s May op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in which he attacked Arizona’s controversial immigration laws.

- In a sound bite too hot to ignore, the New York Post reported Saturday that when asked if his daughter had any enemies, Congresswoman Giffords’s father Spencer Giffords responded, “Yeah… The whole Tea Party.”

And yet.

Loughner remains something of a mystery. His political motivations are unclear. His Youtube page is open to much interpretation, but one would be hard pressed to find a clear anti-health care, Tea Party-style protest in the incomprehensible text ramblings. Nearly every straight news report makes a point of noting that “There is no indication that the suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, identified with the tea party or was politically conservative.” The New York Times’s big Loughner report today leaves you with very little to go on other than this: “…there appear to be no explicit threats of violence that explain why, as police allege, Mr. Loughner, 22, would go to a Safeway supermarket north of Tucson on Saturday morning and begin shooting at a popular Democratic congresswoman and more than a dozen other people, killing 6 and wounding 19.”

And the story continues to unfold. As of Saturday night, police were looking for a second suspect—one whose identity might have shed some light on the motivations for Loughner’s alleged crime. Sunday morning, police appeared to have changed their minds about the second suspect.

With the story quickly unfolding, and information and misinformation dashing rapidly across Twitter and the blogs, and with everything about Loughner’s motivations still unclear, it might be time to call for a “slow-analysis approach.” There will be time as more facts come to light and more is revealed about the assassin’s motivations for the pundits to stake out their positions. There will be ample room and time to debate the important issue of political rhetoric and its effects—regardless of its role in Saturday’s incident—as well as the security of our elected officials, and significantly, gun control laws in Arizona and throughout the country. But all arguments will better served in the light of day, buoyed by information that is confirmed, static, and undisputed.

On Twitter Saturday, the Times’s LaForge shot out one of the smartest and self-evident 140-characters-or-less messages I saw in the wake of the Arizona shooting.

It’s premature for conclusions about the crime, let alone political motives and the like. Breaking news often surprises.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,