AP staffers praised, win $500 for being skeptical about Giffords death reports

Romenesko Misc.
Two sources told Associated Press special correspondent Dave Espo they thought Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was dead, but they didn’t know it first-hand, while reporter Jacques Billeaud was told by Arizona Democratic officials that they weren’t sure of her condition. “Should the AP go with the NPR report? Espo and Billeaud weren’t comfortable with it,” writes senior managing editor Michael Oreskes. “For following their instincts in the best get-it-first-but-first-get-it-right tradition, Espo and Billeaud win Beat of the Week and the $500 prize.” || Rem Rieder: When restraint pays off.

Memo to Associated Press staffers

From: Oreskes, Michael


There was no reason to doubt the NPR report that Rep. Gabriella [sic] Giffords was dead. She had been shot through the head at an outdoor meeting with constituents in Tucson, Ariz., and other news outlets rushed to pick up the story.

Not the AP, where Special Correspondent Dave Espo in Washington and newsman Jacques Billeaud in Phoenix each sensed that something was missing.

Two Capitol Hill sources told Espo they thought Giffords was dead, but they didn’t know it first-hand. Billeaud was talking to Arizona Democratic officials who also said they weren’t sure.

For following their instincts in the best get-it-first-but-first-get-it-right tradition, Espo and Billeaud win Beat of the Week and the $500 prize.

This was a case where the most important thing was what was NOT reported.

The Gifford [sic] shooting was obviously an ultra-competitive story. Yahoo used a Reuters story pinned to NPR. The Washington Post sent an e-mail alert. CBS, NBC and Fox News broadcast the NPR story, too, while CNN reported it, then retracted it and reported it again. ABC didn’t broadcast it but used an erroneous headline on its website. Twitter buzzed with hundreds of tweets and re-tweets.

Should the AP go with the NPR report? Espo and Billeaud weren’t comfortable with it. Deputy West Editor Josh Hoffner, in consultation with Assistant Managing Editor Ted Anthony in New York, made the final call: Hold off.

Their caution was vindicated when the AP soon broke the news that Giffords was alive, though critically wounded in the attack that killed six others.

“I was very proud to be associated with a news organization that did NOT kill Ms. Giffords on Saturday,” wrote Scott White, editor-in-chief of The Canadian Press.

Yahoo took down the Reuters story and stayed with the AP after that. AP also dominated competitive newspaper play with 31 front-pages in a check of selected papers to eight for The New York Times and six for The Washington Post.

From watching competitors to monitoring social media, adherence to a basic principle of journalism _ don’t rely on second-hand information _ paid off, and both news industry leaders and members of the public praised the AP for responsible reporting.

It was the same approach used in photo coverage. No pictures were transmitted until identifications were nailed down.

An exclusive shot from freelancer James Palka showed one victim being taken from the scene on a gurney, but the face wasn’t visible. So the West desk confirmed with one of the medics in the picture that it was the congresswoman.

When photos of suspect Jared Loughner emerged from a social networking site and a member paper’s files, Phoenix photographer Matt York confirmed the ID with one of Loughner’s neighbors, who also provided a yearbook photo.

The AP’s adherence to basic standards made for painstaking work. But the results kept us consistently, correctly, ahead.

CORRECTION: This post originally misspelled the first name of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The AP memo it includes misspells Ms. Giffords first name and last name, which are now identified with a [sic].

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  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks for pointing this out. I’ve fixed our error and added notes where the AP got it wrong.

  • Anonymous

    Considering their job is to tell the story correctly, getting a 500 bonus..does that need to be publicized?

  • Anonymous

    My point is that the decision, in the moment, is whether to go with a poorly sourced story. Their decision was correct, and honor-worthy, regardless of how true or false the information turned out to be in hindsight.

    We in journalism are too often result merchants, giving credit for the scoop or decision not to run a “scoop” based on how it turned out rather than the adherence to journalistic standards.

  • Anonymous

    I would think that they would not have.

    After all, they received the cash for getting it right … if she had died, and the AP crew held the story, they wouldn’t have been wrong, but they would’ve been beat. But they held the bad information, got the correct story out and got it right.

    That’s what they got $500 bonuses for, getting it out and getting it right. I thought the story above was pretty clear on that.

  • Anonymous

    The question AP should be asking themselves is whether they would have given out these prizes if Giffords had indeed been dead. That would have shown a true commitment to journalistic standards.