After conflicting reports in Arizona shooting, Sklar, Silverman track media mistakes while NPR explains

On Jan. 5, House Speaker John Boehner re-enacted the swearing-in of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat from Arizona. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Just days after receiving praise for using Twitter to break news about his own company, NPR’s David Folkenflik tweeted an explanation of media mistakes made when erroneous reports aired that U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died after being shot in the head Saturday at a Tucson, Arizona shopping center during a public event.

Folkenflik seconded a tweet by New York Times media writer David Carr, who said, “Shock at media errors on fast-moving chaotic stories sorta shocks me. early going always going to be fraught.” Then, Folkenflik elaborated in a series of tweets:

“This is a terrible day, compounded for Giffords’ family, friends, constituents & colleagues by initial & errant reports of her death. (more)”

“That said, if bullet goes entirely through someone’s head, not hard to believe eyewitnesses might be convinced she was dead & say so (more).”

“It’s ahistorical to think initial reports in earlier incidents were uniformly accurate, tho journos should be accountable @gregmitch @carr2n”

“@GregMitch I’m saying it’s regrettable & damaging, but also regrettably predictable. I’m not being apologist; I’m describing how it works.”

“News orgs should be aggressive in reporting; conservative in printing/broadcasting/posting; transparent about how they get what they get.”

“But to say sources – even seemingly authoritative sources – can’t themselves get things wrong in the heat of moment ignores reality.”

“One key obviously to separate speculation from fact – and minimize the former as much as possible.”

Earlier in the day, Folkenflik, NPR’s media correspondent, first tweeted NPR’s report that Giffords had died, then acknowledged, “CNN, NPR … backing off reports of her death. Initial reports from shootings & similar events are often conflicting or wrong.”

Related: Why journalists make mistakes & what we can do about them

NPR spokesperson Anna Christopher explained the mistake to Politico. “At two o’clock, we had two sources [saying] that the congresswoman died, the Pima County Sheriff’s office and a congressman’s office, and we went with those in good faith,” she said.

NPR News Executive Editor Dick Meyer elaborated in an editor’s note on Sunday.

“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.”

As Mediaite’s Rachel Sklar tweeted throughout Saturday, other news organizations followed NPR’s lead. Sklar noted when CNN, The New York Times and other news organizations were correct and incorrect about Giffords and the shooting.

” ‘There are, and I stress, conflicting reports’ about whether Congresswoman Giffords has died – CNN. NYT has not yet reported death.”

“CNN first cited NPR. Now says conflicting rpts RT @katierosman: RT @sclarkwxyz: @katierosman CNN seems to be retracting its confirmation.”

“NYT story says she was shot and killed. NYT homepage says ‘still unclear.’ Screengrab attached. http://plixi.com/p/68700297

“Just re-checked NYT story; now updated to remove the claim that Congresswoman Giffords was killed. FYI. http://plixi.com/p/68701106

“To anyone following: I’m attributing all sources; this is an unconfirmed story breaking in real time; caveat: news is in flux. Unfolding.”

“Re: NYT story. RT @palafo: @junecross @rachelsklar Our story now says despite CNN/NPR reports, hospital claims she’s in surgery. We’ll see.”

Craig Silverman used Storify to track the tweets and capture the errors, including those from Reuters. He also highlighted a comment by Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup, who cautioned the media to be careful.

Related: How to publish credible information online while news is breaking

The Associated Press’ Paul Colford noted on Twitter that the AP did not report Giffords had died:

@esills @brianstelter @thecaucus The AP could not independently confirm that Rep. Giffords had died, so the AP did not report it.

.@esills The @AP didn’t report #Giffords‘ death because we lacked confirmation from someone w/ reason to know, such as 1st-hand knowledge.

As of Sunday afternoon, Giffords was reported to be responsive, but still in critical condition. U.S. District Court Judge John Roll died in the shooting, as did Giffords’ staff member Gabe Zimmerman, 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green and three others.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • Anonymous

    I think the competitive first past the post attitude pushes the ‘reporter’ or whoever first tweeted the first message from the scene. Understandably the tweeter is neither trained in getting the ‘story’ right or has credibility issues to address. It was an ‘eyewitness’ account and had to be treated as such.
    The instant media has pushed the entire media into a frenzy resulting in errors of judgement.
    A similar situation is emerging in hyderabad, India where tweets and sms have become the latest weapons of rumourmongers out to play mischief by sowing seeds of unrest among students community in the ongoing movement demanding statehood for Telangana region.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Wynn/1826558820 Mark Wynn

    The other “error:”
    NPR and MSNBC immediately linked, by innuendo and by select spokespersons, the shooting to Sarah Palin, the Tea Party movement and Republican agendas. Clinton Democrats successfully used the same tactic after the Oklahoma City bombing. Now it comes out the shooter had other motivations. Too late, the Democrat’s spin is planted. Responsible news media should be asking the White House and key Democrats how they collaborated on strategy after the shooting.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SOEOVDLQFGDKUHVCP3RSESGTPU Henry Tolery

    It’s one thing for AP to say they didn’t erroneously report the death; what they’re not saying is that they weren’t on top of the story. All their customers on this story will be wondering why AP couldn’t be definitive. Why didn’t they report that she was NOT dead? Short answer is that they didn’t have good reporting either way, and for a news organization to be silent is not something to boast about.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, but media apologists Carr, Mitchell, Folkenflik, etc. are wrong on this one. It’s one thing to pass along unconfirmed reports on a fast-breaking, chaotic story — it’s quite another to report, as NPR, CNN, Fox, NBC, etc. all wrongly did, that “we have confirmed from multiple reliable sources that Rep. Giffords has died.”