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No recent mistake has done more to highlight how important it is to confirm information that may cause grief with multiple, authoritative sources than NPR’s erroneous report that Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) was killed during a Jan. 8, 2011, shooting rampage in Tucson. The mistakes that were made have been detailed by NPR’s ombudsman and the ripple effects as the news spread via social media sites have been analyzed by NPR’s social media strategist, Andy Carvin.
Here’s where we went wrong:
- The initial sources were officials in the local sheriff’s office and one of his station’s reporters. But we did not press the critical issue of whether these sources had direct knowledge of Giffords’s condition or were just passing along what they had heard. We also did not determine whether the sources themselves might have been relying on a single person for their information. Even if we talk to many people about something or cite multiple other media reports, if they are all relying on the same single source for their information that should be a red flag warning us to hold off.
- When we did get word from what we thought was a credible “second source,” it was a member of Congress (who was in Washington, not Arizona), who told an NPR correspondent that he had heard Giffords was dead. Again, we did not determine if the lawmaker had any direct knowledge.
- We did not wait to get confirmation from any of the “primary” sources that must be contacted before reporting an individual’s death: the person’s family (or a family spokesman) and officials (if they have direct knowledge and are authorized to speak) at the hospital.
- Senior NPR editors were not drawn into the decision-making process before the news was broadcast. Involving them in the decision-making would have slowed things down — exactly what was needed at that moment, as an offset to our natural instinct to want to be “timely” with important news.