Saturday, January 8, 2011

Breaking News: There's No Penalty for Being Wrong

(Editor's note: This post was updated Sunday morning 1.9.11. Hat tip to Andy Carvin for pointing out two errors in the post. I have posted his tweet in the comment section. Thanks, Andy!)

The news coverage during the chaotic aftermath of the horrific shooting in Tucson that killed five people and wounded more than a dozen others including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) tells us a lot about the absence of responsibility in the media today.

Journalists used to live by a creed: "Get it first, but first get it right." That would mean not reporting as fact something that hadn't been confirmed by at least two sources. Now, it's "Get it first." As long as you say where you heard something, you can send it to the world.

Nationally, NPR seems to be the original sinner in this case, although the attribution seems to have come from a reporter at KJZZ, the NPR member station in Phoenix. That reporter cited sources in the Pima County Sheriff's office and a Congressmen's office. Fox News and CNN also cited officials in the Sheriff's office.

No one seems to have bothered to check with the emergency room where the Congresswoman was taken. This is lazy reporting of the first order. Yes, the Sheriff's office and Giffords's congressional office are credible sources, but the deputy, dispatcher or staffer who "confirmed" it was clearly not with the Congresswoman on the way to the hospital, thus a second hand source.

Other media pounced on those reports and issued their own breaking news reports, citing the other media outlets as sources. Twitter bristled with thousands of re-tweets of those breaking news alerts. A great look at how the story unfolded is on Andy Carvin's Storify blog.

This isn't the first time (nor will it be the last) that media has reported a death only to be proven wrong by the victim's survival. Craig Silverman wrote an entire book about media errors and has a nice website called Regret the Error.

NPR did apologize for getting the story wrong, although by that time damage had been done and the incorrect information circled the globe multiple times. In the most ironic post of the day, one of NPR's bloggers, Ken Rudin wrote a post about how, in the absence of information, speculation does no one any good. Really? How would you know? Where were you when your colleagues were getting it wrong?

I suppose it's too much to ask to have editors and producers insist on first-hand information. There's too much money at stake in page views, re-tweets and advertising. It seems the only way to keep things in perspective is to realize that today, journalists are telling us what they heard, not what's true.

Bill Salvin


  1. I always liked the unofficial motto of SkyNews in the UK: Never Wrong for Long!

    I heard multiple pronouncements, ranging from the Congresswoman and six others to three dead but not Gabby. These pronouncements were written with absolute certainty, and no "we don't have official confirmation, but we are getting reports that ..."

    The TV media needs to hook viewers, and in the internet age, the boldest headline on my news aggregator ( or drudge) gets clicked on. Human nature would say I click on the one that had the most definitive, not the most nuanced, statement.

    I don't know that there is a solution, other than for people (viewers, readers) to adhere to the old military adage "The first reports are always wrong."

  2. Well said, Robert. Sam Donaldson said in his book that 50% of the information during breaking news is wrong. Except he didn't tell us how to figure out which 50% was wrong and which was right. For communicators and PAOs, it means you have to get out quickly even if you don't have the information so that you can provide context and sanity to what's being reported. Thanks for reading and taking the time to weigh in.

  3. I tend to live by the notion that there is an absolute need to get information out in a crisis situation, with the understanding to reporters that the information is based on initial reports. I would be considered one source. However, when dealing with injuries and death, I always refer to medical professionals and law enforcement to confirm what has happened because I know family, friends and in this case, constituents are hanging on every word. I share the frustration that there is a laziness and believe a lack of experience with today's reporters.

  4. Nico, great insight. The more serious the story, the higher the stakes and the more important to get it right. Not sure there is a solution to fix this. Much of this problem stems from basic human instinct to communicate. The tools we have available to us enable mistakes and enhance the consequences of those mistakes. Thanks for reading.

  5. Andy Carvin pointed out two errors to me from the original post. Here is his tweet to me: @acarvin Your article has two errors in it. NPR used two sources (sheriff's office and congressional office), and released apology too. Thanks for reading Andy and for pointing out the mistakes.