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NPR tweeted Jan. 8 that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords died. Credit: NPR, Twitter via RegrettheError)

The mass shooting in Arizona on Jan. 8 left six people dead and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords “seriously wounded,” but some news outlets incorrectly reported that Giffords died.

NPR has been cited as the first to report Giffords’ death.  LostRemote noted that Reuters, NPR, BBC News and BreakingNews reported on Twitter that Gifford died.  Politico noted CNN, Fox News and the New York Times also reported incorrectly.

Politico explained that NPR’s scoop came quickly “because the wife of the Arizona Public Media News Director Peter Michaels was on the scene.”

Regret the Error’s Craig Silverman collected tweets about the errors.  See his extensive listing of “mistaken reports and other notable reaction and commentary from Twitter” here.

According to Silverman’s list, NPR tweeted “Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords Shot in Arizona” at 1:29 PM EST.

However, even if news outlets apologize, correct and retract, once misinformation is out there, it’s hard to get it back.  According to YahooNews, “the inaccurate reports were widely disseminated and even made their way to Giffords’ husband Mark Kelly, according to a friend of the couple on Sunday’s Good Morning America.

In a Jan. 9 editor’s note, Dick Meyer apologized and explained that NPR’ was relying on “two different governmental sources, including a source in the Pima County Sheriff’s Department.”  He attributed the mistake as “unintentional” and “an error of judgment in a fast-breaking situation.”

Meyer detailed the error:

“In the course of reporting on the tragic events in Tucson on Saturday, NPR broadcast erroneous information in our 2:01 p.m. Eastern newscast, saying that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona had been shot and killed. That information briefly appeared on NPR.org and was contained in an e-mail news alert sent to subscribers of that service. This was a serious and grave error. Thankfully, Rep. Giffords is alive today, though sadly other victims of the shootings are not. Corrections and properly updated reports were issued within minutes.”

CNN acknowledged the error and apologized, according to Broadcasting & Cable.

Lost Remote wondered: “is deleting a tweet after the fact a lack of transparency, especially if any subsequent tweets don’t admit the error? Is a news organization obliged to tweet that it was wrong? … But whether deleting tweets is a responsibility or not, and whether a news organization must tweet that it was wrong, should lead to serious discussions in all newsrooms.”

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One station decided not to delete its inaccurate tweet.  Reporter Andrew Phelps for WBUR, “Boston’s NPR News Station,” explained the station left its inaccurate tweet stating Giffords “was killed in Arizona” up but has corrected.

“We have decided NOT to delete the erroneous tweet, because it serves as part of the narrative of this story. Facts can change fast when news is breaking, and that leads to errors. We need to own the error, not hide from it. But we also need to rectify the error and explain ourselves to people who trust us. Deleting the tweet would do more to harm trust than perserving it would do to harm truth.”

AP has stated that it didn’t report that Giffords died.  According to Politico, AP spokesperson Paul Colford tweeted “Let the record show that @AP did not report that Rep. #Giffords was slain.” and “The @AP didn’t report #Giffords’ death because we lacked confirmation from someone w/ reason to know, such as 1st-hand knowledge.”

New York Daily News, which noted that it “published early inaccurate reports that Giffords had been killed and later corrected them,” reported that PBS Newshour reporters discussed the inaccurate reporting Jan. 9.

According to the Daily News, Newshour reporter Ray Suarez stated “To be first and be wrong is bad.” Likewise, Judy Woodruff criticized “the rush to be first” especially when it turns out to produce inaccurate information.

Miles O’Brien reportedly wondered “what’s the rush to report someone’s death?”

Dan Gillmor wrote on Salon calling for a “slow news approach” to breaking news so that less misinformation is spread.  Gillmor also wondered if we’ve shifted from a 24 hours news cycle to a “1,440 minute news cycle.”

“That 24-hour news cycle itself needs further adjustment, though. Even an hourly news cycle is too long; in an era of live-TV police chases, Twitter and twitchy audiences, the latest can come at any minute. Call it the 1,440-minute news cycle.”

Poynter compiled several of NPR reporter David Folkenflik’s tweets about the erroneous reporting, including:

  • “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.”

iMediaEthics is writing to Reuters, BBC News, Breaking News, Fox News and the New York Times  to see if they are running apologies or corrections.

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NPR Apologizes, Corrects Stories Claiming Congresswoman Gabby Giffords Died

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