January 10, 2011

If you followed breaking news coverage of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting Saturday afternoon, you may have been confused by all the conflicting reports. NPR first reported that Giffords had died, and soon after CNN, Fox News and The New York Times did the same. But they then retracted the information, saying she wasn’t in fact dead. NPR, which heard the information from two sources — the local sheriff’s office and a congressman’s office — apologized for the mistake and called it an unintentional error of judgment.

The mistake illustrated the classic challenge of being first and being right, and it raised questions about whether we should judge wrongness differently in breaking news situations.

Looking for answers, I turned to Kathryn Schulz, author of the book “Being Wrong.” In an e-mail interview, Schulz said that while journalists have an obligation to get the facts right, even the most hard-working ones are inevitably wrong from time to time.

“You can look at the Gabrielle Giffords story and see a terrible mistake, and it was that,” she said. “But it was also an understandable mistake, in some ways, and the kind I think we’ll keep seeing in journalism no matter what we do.”

Others thought it was understandable, too. The New York Times’ David Carr tweeted: “Shock at media errors on fast-moving chaotic stories sorta shocks me. Early going always going to be fraught.”

U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot on Saturday at a public event with constituents called "Congress on your Corner." (James Palka/AP)

NPR Media Correspondent David Folkenflik, who tweeted about NPR’s report that Giffords had died, wrote a series of tweets about the erroneous media reports. It’s “regrettably predictable,” Folkenflik said, that sources might get information wrong in the heat of the moment. To say that they don’t “ignores reality.” The Nation’s Greg Mitchell challenged this statement, tweeting; “Oh come on, you are not seriously saying to trust shocked eyewitnesses as confirmation of death of a congresswoman?”

First reports from moments of crisis or tragedy are often deeply flawed, Folkenflik said in a phone interview. This doesn’t mean it’s right to make mistakes in these situations, he said, but it’s more understandable when they are made. He stressed the importance of being honest with yourselves as journalists and transparent with your audience.

“News organizations have to think about what standards they want to use before reporting information; they need to be clear about who they know and what they know if they decide to put it on air or post it or print it,” Folkenflik said. “Speaking as someone covering the media, I would say NPR conveyed a seriousness of purpose and a recognition that the stakes are high.”

Dick Meyer, executive editor of NPR News, conveyed this tone in an apology note, saying: “In a situation so chaotic and changing so swiftly, we should have been more cautious. … 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.”

The note generated some positive responses on Twitter, reinforcing the belief that admitting we’re wrong can actually help news consumers trust us more.

Years ago, if a print news organization made a mistake, it would have to wait until the next day’s paper to publish a correction. Not so anymore. While sites such as Twitter and Facebook make it easy for misinformation to spread rapidly, they also give journalists the opportunity to correct mistakes in real-time and be more open with their audiences about what’s confirmed.

In an ideal world, Schulz said, new media would actually be better at correcting mistakes than old media — which wasn’t ever great at doing so in the first place. “This is not an impossible dream,” she said. “Many of the features that characterize today’s media landscape — speed, distributed-ness, and so forth — can work to our advantage as much as to our disadvantage.”

Journalists talked about this on Twitter over the weekend and asked one another how to achieve real-time verification.

NPR’s Andy Carvin joined the conversation and also tweeted a link to a comment he wrote on a Lost Remote post about erroneous reports on Twitter. Carvin, who handles NPR’s tweets, said that instead of deleting the tweet he wrote about Giffords being dead, he posted another tweet saying, “Update: there are conflicting reports about whether she was killed.” Carvin didn’t retract the original tweet, he said, because he wanted to be transparent about NPR’s mistake.

Related: Who broke the Tucson shooting news to you?

The mistake is a reminder that now more than ever, journalists need to put safeguards in place to catch mistakes before they happen and correct them after the fact.

“We’re not going to be able to create a more perfect human being,” Schulz said, “so we need to create more perfect systems.” Part of the problem is that we have a new medium but don’t have new correction systems to manage it yet. Schulz pointed out that both journalists and citizens who announce and share news should be part of the conversation about new systems.

“The fact is that everyone who’s involved in spreading news also needs to be involved in correcting it — and, right now, in helping to figure out how best to do so. That includes the people at Twitter,” she said. “Why not have a ‘correct’ function (like the ‘reply’ and ‘retweet’ functions) that would automatically send a correction to everyone who had retweeted something that contained an error?”

Schulz said she thinks NPR did a good job handling the error, and she’s optimistic about new correction mechanisms starting to take shape.

“I’m not saying we’ve got the problem solved. But I also didn’t see any grave mishandling here,” Schulz said, referring to NPR’s mistake. “I did see a lot of good-faith efforts to acknowledge, explain, apologize for, and correct the mistake. That’s more than we usually see.”

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Mallary Tenore Tarpley is a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication and the associate director of UT’s Knight…
Mallary Tenore Tarpley

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