Accuracy and Crisis

Were early, erroneous reports of Giffords’s death preventable?

“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,” CJR’s Joel Meares reported Sunday, following the Saturday shooting spree in Tucson. Poynter and Regret the Error’s Craig Silverman both carried timelines and summaries of the early coverage.

NPR was the first to pronounce Giffords dead. The error (committed by other outlets as well) spread through the media, but was quickly corrected. An apologetic note from NPR’s executive editor, Dick Meyer, explained that:

The information we reported came from two different governmental sources, including a source in the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. Nonetheless, in a situation so chaotic and changing so swiftly, we should have been more cautious. There were, obviously, conflicting reports from authorities and other sources. The error we made was unintentional, an error of judgment in a fast-breaking situation. It was corrected immediately. But we deeply regret the error.

Already all of us at NPR News have been reminded of the challenges and professional responsibilities of reporting on fast-breaking news at a time and in an environment where information and misinformation move at light speed. We learn, we redouble our efforts and dedication and move forward with our best efforts for the millions who rely on us every day.

Meyer’s nostra culpa was reasoned and thoughtful, and media critics like The New York Times’s David Carr also suggested that pundits consider the pressures on journalists covering breaking, crisis situations. Nonetheless, the question remains: How can outlets like NPR “redouble” their efforts to improve accuracy “in an environment where information and misinformation move at light speed?” Are errors like those that followed the shooting preventable, or will they always be an unfortunate byproduct of our 24/7 media world?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review. Tags: , , , , ,