In the Wake of a Shooting, Media Confusion
In the moments after the January 8 shooting of 20 people in Tucson—as the media scrambled to assemble the facts—the tension between speed and accuracy produced an initial period of chaos and misinformation.
Several news organizations erroneously reported that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had died. Those errors also spread through new technology faster and wider than they might have only a few years ago, via news alerts and twitter feeds, including by news organizations whose own feeds cited others as the source.
Almost as quickly, and in a way that can also be attributed to new technology, the errors were quickly identified by consumers, who were able to make public that different news operations were offering contradictory and sometimes false information.
For the most part, the confusion lasted about 30 minutes. Some of it may have been caused by officials in Tucson who were talking but did not have confirmed information. Within an hour, however, most organizations had become more cautious. It may be a case of technology encouraging the spread of, and then just as quickly helping correct, false information.
According to several media accounts and a Twitter chronology on the website Regret the Error, the shootings that killed six and wounded 14, including Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, quickly spiraled into a tangle of conflicting storylines, with media outlets then forced to produce corrections.
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2:09 p.m. – The Huffington Post tweets that, according to NPR, “Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has been killed.”2:09 p.m. – Reuters now issues a flash that Giffords “dies after being shot in the head.”
2:12 p.m. –An NPR twitter feed says Giffords and six others were “killed by gunman in Tucson.”
2:21 p.m. – A CNN journalist now tweets that the cable channel “confirms that Gabrielle Giffords has died.”
Other accounts also tracked news organizations that reported Giffords death. On the New York Times site, media reporter Brian Stelter writes that “NPR appeared to be the first national news outlet to report, falsely, that Ms. Giffords had died. CNN, CBS, Fox News, and other entities also said that her death had been ‘confirmed.’…The New York Times also briefly reported that Ms. Giffords had died, citing a spokesman and other news reports.”
Within 15 minutes of the early mis-reporting, however, news organizations begin pulling back their initial reports, amid widespread confusion over Giffords’ condition.
2:34 p.m. – Reuters now tweets that the Congresswoman is “still alive, in surgery.”
2:36 p.m. – CNN states that Giffords’ “local press secretary tells CNN that she is still in surgery. Law enforcement sources say she has died.” (A short time later, CNN reports that a “hospital spokesman” is confirming that Giffords is in surgery.)
2:36 p.m. –An NPR Twitter update says, “There are conflicting reports about whether she was killed.”As it becomes clearer that early reports about Giffords’ death were wrong, the Twitter universe begins to brim with criticism of the news outlets’ mistake.
2:52 p.m. – NPR media reporter David Folkenflik responds that “What we’re seeing is the process of reporting breaking news, in real time.” A minute later, he adds that “Before cable & web, this would have played out far more out of sight. Doesn’t exempt journalists from having to report w great care.”
3:09 p.m. – Writing on Salon.com, Dan Gillmore writes that “the reports from traditional news organizations, amplified by Twitter, blogs and other Internet media, have been a parade of unclear information–just what we've come to expect in such situations.”
3:11 p.m. – Part of a growing twitter response to the story, one tweeter declares: “A tough day for national media covering the shooting of Cong. Wmn. Giffords. Lots of mistakes in this ‘error’ of instant information.”
January 9 – NPR official Dick Meyer apologizes for the “serious and grave error” in reporting the death of Giffords at 2:01 p.m. on January 8. “The information we reported came from two different governmental sources, including a source in the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. Nonetheless, in a situation so chaotic and changing so swiftly, we should have been more cautious,” he adds.