Former NPR ombudsman reacts to Giffords mistake being Error of the Year

One of the best parts of doing my year-end roundup of errors and corrections is the feedback I get. This is true for the folks who say they enjoyed it or learned from it, and it’s true for the folks who get in touch to say they disagree with something I wrote, or to identify a mistake.

As of this writing, I’ve added a correction on the post that addresses three factual errors:

Correction: This post originally said that ITV, the broadcaster cited for “Best Video Error,” was Irish. It is in fact British. It incorrectly referred to The Beatles as the “Fab Five,” instead of the “Fab Four.” It also placed the Advocate newspaper in New Orleans when it is in fact based in Baton Rouge.

All three mistakes were spotted by readers. Lyra McKee tweeted to let me know about the ITV error. Commenter Rob Hoffmann spotted my Fab Five error. Commenter jayworkman spotted my mistaken location of the Advocate. My thanks to all of them. My apologies for missing these three obvious, preventable mistakes.

Did I get anything else wrong? Email me or add a comment on the post.

The other notable piece of feedback thus far came in an email from former NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard. (She has recently been doing some writing for Poynter.)

Shepard was on the job when NPR played a major role in 2011′s Error of the Year, the false death reports of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Shepard got in touch to disagree with my characterization of events of that day. I asked if I could share her comments, and she agreed. Her email:

Craig — was enjoying your end of the year column until I came upon this graph:

Though this is a tale of how new platforms like Twitter can spread misinformation, it’s also a bit of an old-school story. NPR did the right thing by seeking out sources on the ground. But those sources turned out to be wrong.

It’s just wrong. Checking out sources on the ground makes sense, but finding the right sources and asking the right questions did not happen and NPR should be criticized not complimented for that. I know the subject intimately, and in both cases w/ each source, NPR failed to ask a key but simple question: How do you know that?

I realize you are writing a paean to Andy and that he was just passing along information that NPR was reporting when he tweeted Rep. Giffords death. But that was a serious mistake on NPR’s part for not practicing Journalism 101: How do you know that?  Not a case of the sources were wrong. The sources were just repeating rumors. Had NPR asked the Sheriff’s deputy who said she was dead, how he knew that, he would have learned the deputy was repeating a rumor.


NPR does many things well, and I harbor no ill will toward them, but I think you are not painting an accurate picture in your post in regards to NPR.

That’s fair. After all, Shepard worked to piece together what happened that day. The above link from her email is a good, important read. As is her piece about the toll the mistake took on Giffords’ family and friends.

For my part, I should have been clear in my write up that it’s incumbent upon journalists to ask that wonderful question Shepard shared, “How do you know that?”

It’s not enough to just repeat what sources tell you. In this case, the sources seemed credible, but they were in fact just repeating rumors. NPR may have uncovered that fact with a couple of probing questions. I didn’t do a good job of explaining this in my post.

Fittingly, I stressed this point in another post from yesterday, about the Mitt Romney KKK slogan apologies:

Verification before dissemination. It bears repeating.

I will update the Error of the Year section of my year-end report to include a link to this post, and Shepard’s information.

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  • http://yellowdogshateelephants.blogspot.com/ Grumpy Demo

    “It’s not enough to just repeat what sources tell you. In this case, the sources seemed credible, but they were in fact just repeating rumors. NPR may have uncovered that fact with a couple of probing questions. I didn’t do a good job of explaining this in my post.”

    I agree, but the reporter was following NPR’s style book of “he said, she said” journalism which Ms. Shepard spent her tenure at NPR defending to the death. See anything she wrote defending NPR cowardice at calling torture harsh interrogation.

    NPR’s reporting on politics and all Defense Department coverage has but nothing but reciting what its sources tell them.  Recently NPR was caught reporting that the US Gov had kill a terrorist for the second time.

    It is journalism 101 some Ms. Shepard avoided defending her entire time at NPR.