How NPR pronounced Gabrielle Giffords dead

NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard has, apparently, spent the last couple of days trying to figure out how NPR allowed a false report onto the air that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died.

She’s issued her report.

The most interesting observation (at least to this blogger) was an exoneration of NPR’s Two Way blog, which also posted the story, but with a disclaimer, Shepard reports:

The incorrect news was also posted on “The Two-Way,” NPR’s newsblog. It was attributed to an unnamed source in the Pima County Sheriff’s office. However, Two-Way blogger Mark Memmott handled the news just right, continually cautioning that the story was erupting in the midst of panic and pandemonium and nothing was certain.

Which demands that someone ask the question, “if it’s not certain, why post it, particularly since it did not come with any attribution”?

But in the reality of how blogs work, she’s wrong. Unless the blog has been edited, there was no specific caution attached to the news that Giffords was dead. The caution was actually issued at the beginning of the live blog which scrolls to the bottom of a page as newer items are added to the top. That’s just the way blogs work, but the as-it-happens blog isn’t read like a newspaper story or, for that matter, like any other online story. On a live-blog, any caution, any disclaimer, any information at all that needs to be imparted, needs to be embedded completely within a time-stamped entry.


Other than that, though, Shepard zeroes in correctly:

NPR had two sources, though neither was identified in any way, and should have been. And the newscast should have put the news in context, explaining that a tragedy had just occurred, the story was changing quickly, and this was what NPR knew at that moment.

A critical question for each source was: “How do you know that?”

It turns out that neither source had accurate, first-hand information. The congressional source had heard it in a meeting on Capitol Hill, where undoubtedly rumors and half truths were flying around.

Moran said his information came from “law enforcement sources, a KJZZ reporter and very early reports on”

“I felt supremely confident in the two sources I had but unfortunately those sources were relying on other sources, almost like a game of telephone tag,” said Moran. “Unfortunately in this case the stakes were extremely high and I’m sick about it.”

Typically, in a big, fast-breaking news story like this, senior editors should have been consulted before going on air with devastating news based on sources NPR would not name.

One other note: Shepard reports that NPR correspondent Audie Cornish provided the second source on the report, indicating it came from “a congressman’s office.” She didn’t identify which congressman, but should have.

Shepard also does not wade into the question of using anonymous sources, which is unfortunate. And while she says senior editors at NPR should’ve been consulted before the story was aired, she doesn’t provide an answer to the question of whether NPR’s firing (I’m calling it what it was) of Ellen Weiss from the position days earlier was one of the reasons that wasn’t done.

  • Nicole

    Thanks for this post.

    On Saturday, I heard the same phrase on more than one radio station and more than one TV station: “The facts are constantly changing.”

    Actually, no. The facts really didn’t change. The rumors changed. The information known changed. The facts were constant.

    Not only was this statement inaccurate, it was also, in my point of view, being used as a way to justify saying anything. It was media organizations giving themselves a free pass because, you know, “the facts are constantly changing. What else can we do but report what’s being said?” It’s a lazy and irresponsible way to do things.

    I do understand that pressure that individuals who work for news organizations are under. They are constantly being asked to be first, to report as quickly as they can. This can’t have a positive effect on the reporters or on journalism itself. A lot of this pressure comes from bosses who want to be able to say their organization was “first” with the news. I’ve never understood this. Everyone is going to cover breaking news. They all end up with the same exact stories (for right or wrong) at the end of the day. Media consumers, for the most part, turn to the organization they prefer. They’re not scanning around, stopwatch in hand, trying to find out who said something first. Who cares? How about giving reporters time to do their stories correctly? And how about giving the audience respect by offering facts with context, not just bits of rumor and pieces of a story spit out over long spans of time as the story is unfolding?