When Covering Tragedy, Speed Can Trump Accuracy
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
NPR News, the New York Times, CNN, Fox News and the Arizona Star all erroneously reported the death of Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson. NPR apologized for the mistake, and instituted procedures to try to ensure it wouldn't happen again.
In a sense, the story is as old as Dewey beats Truman. News organizations have always made mistakes. In another sense, new or relatively new technology increases the pressure of time. And while each of those organizations stress accuracy, it's also important to be timely. And everybody wants to be first, so long as they get it right.
We want to hear from journalists and others involved in releasing information to the public today. How do you ensure you don't make mistakes? How do the minute-by-minute deadlines of cable TV and websites change that challenge? And give us an example, if you can.
Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later, on "The Opinion Page," an argument to increase the number of representatives in Congress. But first, getting it right. And we begin with Dick Meyer, NPR's executive editor of news, who's joined us here in Studio 3A. Dick, nice to have you back on the program.
DICK MEYER: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: And did this mistake expose systemic problems?
MEYER: No, I don't think it did. I think it was a - I mean, look, it was clearly a mistake. It was a faux pas. It was a serious one. But I don't think it exposed anything systemic. What it exposed is that in a human endeavor, there will be human error. There's no such thing as a completely fail-safe system.
I think the processes and the safeguards, and the checks and balances, we have in place are the proper ones. They just didn't work this time.
CONAN: And what would you do to try to make sure they will work next time?
MEYER: Well, I mean, essentially, all you can do is remind people of what the processes are, and make very sure that everybody involved understands them and understands them intuitively and is vigilantly about them -vigilant about them.
You know, I once had a boss - long, long ago - and we were having a conversation about how he sleeps nights, knowing - this was at CBS News - with all of the radio and all of the television that CBS was producing then, and all the things that could go wrong, you know, how could he sleep at night? And he said, well, I have a great faith in the superego and the guilt of the people who work for me.
I mean, the people at NPR and most people in news are mortified by making even a small error. So there's nothing that you can do to make perfection, just like you can't in any area of human life. But I do think we have the right processes.
CONAN: Does the addition of website - this mistake was made initially on the air, so the website was not the first place to report it - but does the addition of the website and its minute-by-minute deadline, so to speak - does that add to the pressure?
MEYER: I think it does in some organizations. I don't think it does at NPR because there's an incredibly high premium on our hard-news operation for digital, on being very transparent about what we know and what we don't know.
So at a newscast that we might broadcast at the top of the hour - you know, 2 o'clock, 3 o'clock - it's a very small amount of time. We need to be very economical with our word choice. You don't have those limits on the Web. And so really, there's much more time to say hold on, there are very, very conflicting reports. CNN is reporting this, Fox is reporting this; all of this is preliminary.
And in fact, on the day of that story, that's what we were doing. It's -the Web is an easier place to be transparent, actually.
CONAN: On a day of - well, obviously a terrible event like Tucson, does NPR rush additional resources in to help with, you know, more editors on the newscast, more editors - more producers on the programs?
MEYER: Yeah, and we absolutely did that. And in this case, it didn't work because there was, you know, a series of decisions that were made coming up to the time when newscast was going on the air at 2 p.m., I believe.
The thing that didn't happen...
CONAN: Two p.m. Eastern Time.
MEYER: Yeah, Eastern Time, exactly. The thing that didn't happen, that should've happened, was that the process should have stopped, and a more senior editor should have been brought into the conversation. And that's part of our process; it always has been. We've re-emphasized that. But just providing more bodies doesn't necessarily help in a confusing and adrenaline-filled situation.
CONAN: The New York Times also made the error, though the news appeared only online. Less than 10 minutes later, the story was revised, and the mention of Gabrielle Giffords' death was removed.
New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane wrote about the mistake in a piece he called "Time, the Enemy," and he joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. ARTHUR BRISBANE (Public Editor, The New York Times): Nice to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And again, the same question I put to Dick Meyer. Was there a systemic problem exposed by this mistake?
Mr. BRISBANE: Well, I think yes and no. I think yes only in the sense that the Web, the operation on the Web, creates such a feeling of urgency, time sensitivity, that those who are responsible for producing and publishing stories on the Web act as quickly as they can from a belief that it's an important value.
And I think in and of itself, that's a systemic challenge, let's put it that way. I think the mistake actually occurred largely through - largely because of the hectic environment, inattention, and a relatively junior staffer misunderstanding the direction he was being given and thinking it was appropriate for him to go ahead and post this new lead on a story.
CONAN: Post, in the Web sense, is the equivalent of going on the air - or publishing, in the New York Times sense.
Mr. BRISBANE: That's correct. And one of the interesting aspects, I think, is that when you think about, let's say, the New York Times and the enormous apparatus required to take a story to publication - physical apparatus, human apparatus - in stark contrast, online the apparatus can boil down to one relatively junior staffer, and hitting the send button.
CONAN: And it's interesting, the change of culture from having - the New York Times always had more than one deadline a day - but broadly, one deadline per day, to having, as you said in your piece, a deadline every minute.
Mr. BRISBANE: True, and one can contemplate just how much of an institutional change might be required to be extremely good at both: good at publishing an authoritative newspaper with a few deadlines a day, and good at publishing and continuously updating a website.
And by all accounts, the Times' website is a good one. I do think that this issue, focusing on what it takes to be first, highlights some special requirements in that department.
CONAN: And that - I wanted to get back to you, Dick Meyer - the pressure to be first. Is there pressure to be first? I mean, is that a good in and of itself?
MEYER: It is a good in a world of competing news values, and what I'll say about that might be controversial. But it is not an especially pronounced or acute value in NPR's news culture.
Being first on information that is going to be almost universally public in a matter of time is not something that is very high in our canon of what we strive for. I mean, obviously if there's a deep investigation or a major scoop on something, that's where it's important for us to be first.
But in our culture, ironically - and this, in a way, is why this error that was made on the Tucson story is out of character for this institution - being first on that kind of story is not particularly important.
There's some competitive pressure, yeah, and we want our listeners and our readers to get the best service. But we have de-emphasized it, and I think we've de-emphasized that very consciously. And we also don't go on the air with continuous news coverage - breaking news coverage, as it's called on cable; rolling, breaking, whatever. We do that very, very, very rarely.
CONAN: Arthur Brisbane, the same: Do you think the Times' culture to be first resulted - or at least, to keep up - resulted in this mistake?
Mr. BRISBANE: Well, I think it contributes to it. And I think it raises the interesting question whether the two cultures - the culture to be authoritative, which is the traditional value structure at the Times; and then the culture to be first, which is really more a creature of media that came along after print. Sadly for print journalists, the reality is that radio and television, cable and now, the Internet usurped the timeliness of print. And the Internet now comes back around and offers print organizations the opportunity, perhaps, to be first again. And it's very tempting to try to do that because journalists are driven, I think, by values that are kind of in the Kool-Aid, if you will.
And being first and being right are, naturally, things to aspire to. But I would interject a word of caution on that because I do think that those two things are in conflict, to a substantial degree. And I think if you were to ask yourself what's more important for an organization like the New York Times, clearly, to be authoritative wins.
And to the extent that making errors - not that there have been that many, that I'm aware of, but this is one - making such errors, I think, cuts into that hard-earned capital, if you will, as being an authoritative news organization.
CONAN: We want to get listeners involved in the conversation as well. We're talking with Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times public editor, the equivalent of NPR's ombudsman; also Dick Meyer, NPR's executive editor for news; about - well, not just the mistake in the reporting on Gabrielle Giffords, the erroneous report that she was killed, but what that tells us about the nature of the news media, what lessons we can learn.
We want to hear from journalists, and others involved in releasing information to the public, today about mistakes made, maybe an example; and what that tells us about the pressures of time and other competitive interests.
Here's, for example, an email from Marnie(ph), who emails: Didn't the exact, same thing happen when President Reagan was shot? Media reported that James Brady had been killed. Are lessons different now, or were they forgotten? And that's Mary(ph) in Bel Air. And indeed, she's right. James Brady was reported killed, at least on some news outlets. And it is, to some degree, the same lesson. So we'll go back over that when we come back from a short break. Stay with us.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Breaking news now breaks faster than ever. It's reporting at the speed of tweet. First reports of a crisis or a tragedy or an election can often be riddled with mistakes - some minor, some major - despite journalism's best efforts to put systems in place to prevent error.
We've been talking about how to get it right, what happens when you don't. We want to hear from journalists and others involved in releasing information to the public. How do you ensure you don't make mistakes? How do you - do the minute-by-minute deadlines of cable TV and websites change that challenge? And an example, please.
The phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Dick Meyer is with us here in Studio 3A. He's executive editor of news here at NPR. Also with us, the New York Times public editor, Arthur Brisbane. Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation, and let's go to John(ph), and John's with us from Charleston.
JOHN (Caller): Yes, hey. I'm a military officer. I've been a pilot with C-17s for about 15 years, and been dealing with the news and the people in the press for that amount of time.
It seems to me the deadlines just are fierce for them, and they get a lot of details wrong. Every - in fact, I've dealt with this most recently in Haiti, when we were doing the Haitian crisis, and we were pulling people out of there.
CONAN: People should understand C-17s are cargo planes. So you're flying supplies, presumably, down to Haiti.
JOHN: Yeah, bringing them down, and bringing refugees back up, had evacuees on the cargo bay. Little details like I was quoted as saying a bunch of things along the way, but - then they grabbed my name. They just took it off the roster, and they noticed behind it, it said comma-U-S-A-F, which stands for U.S. Air Force. But the reporter thought that was my first name.
(Soundbite of laughter)
And so I got a whole bunch of (unintelligible) dedicated to Usaf, which I thought was kind of funny, and I thought it would only end up in the local paper. But it got picked up by AP, and it gets repeated again and again and again. It wound up in about 12 different papers, all with the same mistake - as if no one really did any kind of fact-checking on anything of that detail.
CONAN: Arthur Brisbane, that's interesting, that - sort of the echo chamber effect, once one reputable source has picked up a story or a fact, it does tend to get parroted by other news organizations.
Mr. BRISBANE: Neal, I can't help repeat something I read recently in relation to something else. Somebody was saying, well, it's like how young kids behave in a soccer game. You know, you put a bunch of 6- or 7-year-olds out on a soccer field, they'll all run to the ball. So everybody goes to the same piece of information.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BRISBANE: And unfortunately, things are propagated out so quickly -you know, you mentioned Twitter, but the websites are the same. Everything goes forth so quickly that an error is replicated at the speed of light. And boom, now it's hard to reel it back.
CONAN: Well, Usaf, thanks very much for the call.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JOHN: Yeah, thanks.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Ramie(ph), I hope that I have that right; in Birmingham.
REINY (Caller): Hi, how are you?
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
RAMIE: Well, I worked in armed forces broadcasting some years ago as well. I was on a carrier group back in the Mediterranean when the hostage situation was going on.
And just having worked in the media in New York City earlier, there was tremendous pressure back then. There was a culture to become first. You know, if you came first, it was supposed to mean everything back then.
Well, the day after Ronald Reagan was sworn in, all indicators were that the hostages were about to be released. I mean, everything was pointing in that direction. It looked like there was a 99.9 percent probability.
So I contacted the station. I mean, this seemed just inevitable what was going to happen. They said the release was going to take place within the next three or four minutes. And it caused a big stir, and the commanding officer had to come back and kind of say, well, we're going to back off of that.
But there was another incident, I worked in New York, during the Patty Hearst case. And it seemed this was the exact opposite. Information was being withheld. Patty Hearst was actually in custody. They had already arrested the Harrises. But they withheld information that Patty Hearst had been arrested.
And to me, it seemed to add up. I did the same thing here. I made the announcement there to the others, the other editors, that Patty Hearst was actually in custody. You know, this was just to be first, sort of. And we went on ahead and broke in. There was tremendous pressure...
CONAN: Now presumably, you were being asked to withhold the information so that...
RAMIE: No, the media - the authorities in Los Angeles had withheld the information.
CONAN: So that other people in the - people will remember the name -Symbionese Liberation Army would not be cognizant of the fact that Ms. Hearst had been recovered and might still be arrested.
RAMIE: For whatever reason, they would not - they had not released the information. It seemed obvious at one point, if the Harrises and Patty Hearst were together, and if they had the Harrises, they had Ms. Hearst. But you kind of covered that already.
But there was just pressure to become first and, you know, that's the impetus for having - for my having done that, and I'll leave it at that.
CONAN: All right, Ramie, thanks very much for the phone call. Dick, I'm sorry?
MEYER: Well, I do think the caller points out something - which I would put out there, and I think is true - which is, there has been a proliferation of media outlets, and not just platforms, in the past 20 years.
I mean, 25, 30 years ago, there were three networks. And then there were many cable stations. I think there's a wider diversity of what we would call news standards than there was during what some would consider a golden age of American journalism 20 to 75 years ago.
And I think, you know, there's a lot of discussion about whether the Internet and new technology changes standards, changes the pressure to be first, and accelerates everything. I think that the role of cable actually had a much more profound impact on that. And I think that right now, we have a situation where news organizations have radically different standards, and radically different news values.
CONAN: Let's get another voice in the conversation, Kelly McBride, ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute, where she writes and teaches about media ethics, with us from a studio at Poynter in St. Petersburg. Nice to have you with us on the program today.
Ms. KELLY McBRIDE (Ethics Group Leader, Poynter Institute): Yes, thank you.
CONAN: And you can be glad you're in St. Petersburg. It's freezing here in Washington, D.C. So, but in any case, just to follow up on what Dick Meyer said, do you believe that there are, in the plethora of news outlets today, very different standards about accuracy?
Ms. McBRIDE: Well, maybe a little. I think there are - there is a wider variety now. I don't think it's vastly different than it used to be. But what I think is different is the way we socialize reporters, or other people who create information, to understand how you get something right.
I mean, in all of these cases that we've discussed as well as, I think, you know - really, one of the most famous recent ones was the Sago Mine disaster, where you had newspapers across the country writing that, I think, 13 miners survived when in fact, only one survived.
In all of these cases, you have the reporters gathering the information from individuals - sometimes it's anonymously; sometimes it's not anonymously - and then not asking the second question, which is: How do you know that?
And that's a skill that reporters are taught in newsrooms around the country, and I think that those systems have degraded. We don't necessarily - and that's because we have fewer reporters; our newsrooms are thinner; because the pressure is more intense because of the Web; and also, because we're getting information from so many different sources now.
It's not just reporters out there, talking to sources. It's stuff coming over social networks, and information that's coming in digital format. So I think that that's what's really changed.
CONAN: It's interesting; we got this email: I'm not sure if this was a press-related release but only a little while ago, it was tweeted that Bill Cosby had died, and it was refuted only when Cosby himself proved that he was still alive.
And Dick, you know...
MEYER: I guess you're going to have to prove to me that Bill Cosby's alive right now. I mean, you know, one of the things that's changed so radically is that 20 years ago, it would have been physically impossible for a civilian, without the backing of a large news organization - with microphones and satellites and radio towers - to communicate a bit of information to a large number of people.
I mean, besides screaming, there was really not much capacity to do that. Now, anybody with a cell phone and with a thumb can really communicate incredibly quickly - whether they're a journalist or not - to a huge number of people. And that can go viral; that can spread very quickly.
So we're operating where there's a lot of information out there purporting to be definitive and somehow, we have to cut through that. And to me, that is - it's very challenging to see what our obligations are in that setting, and how we cope with it.
We can't just sort of be ostrich-like and say, we will abide by our traditional standards. I mean, I think we should, but the fact is that journalists no longer control the flow of mass, instantaneous information.
CONAN: Let's go next to Jay(ph), Jay with us from Coral Springs in Florida.
JAY (Caller): Yes, good afternoon. I'm wondering whether or not there are any news organizations that actually got it right - or, shall we say, did not make the mistake in announcing that Ms. Giffords had died - and what they may have done, what safeguards they may have had in place to get the story right.
CONAN: Kelly McBride, I wonder if you've looked into that at all.
Ms. McBRIDE: I can't remember who it was. I knew this question was going to come up. There was one news organization, though, in the mix that held back on that information, and I can't remember if it was CNN or perhaps one of the wires.
But there was one who said, we haven't confirmed this ourselves; we don't have the sourcing on it; we're only seeing it repeated in a number of other organizations. And so they didn't go with it. But he points out how very hard it is once you have more than - I would say the tipping point is two major organizations. And once you have two major newsrooms that are reporting information, in the American media, almost everybody jumps on board.
CONAN: Because that's two sources - they see it.
Ms. McBRIDE: Well, and what's funny is, is you don't - what you don't know unless you really - unless you know how those organizations work, is you don't know if one of them is really using the other as a source.
CONAN: And that's a difficult issue and Jay, you've raised an interesting point. And perhaps there will be a more in-depth study about how organizations reacted; those who got it right - or those who didn't react, and those who did.
MEYER: I think a lot of news organizations got this story right. I really do. I think a lot were restrained. I think NBC was. I think many got this one right.
CONAN: I wonder - and I wanted to put this to you, Arthur Brisbane. Craig Silverman, who runs regrettheerror.com, is a leading proponent of the use of checklists to guarantee accuracy. Pilots, of course, have used them forever. More and more doctors are using them now. Might this be applicable to journalism as well?
Mr. BRISBANE: Well, I think in principle, that concept is good, and I think that in principle, most editors who are in a position of making these decisions - at the New York Times, for example - have a checklist in their mind. Unfortunately, sometimes that checklist, which might include we have this from two separate sources, can be undermined by the phenomenon that I think Kelly referred to, which is that one organization or one source got it from the other source. So I think checklist is a good concept; not sure that it's foolproof.
And I don't know that it lends itself to the kind of hectic context that these decisions are made in - although, you could argue that it might be a good antidote to the feeling, almost panicked feeling of news breaking: Do we have it? Do we not have it? What do we need to become convinced that we do have it?
CONAN: We're talking about getting it right in the aftermath of several news organizations, including NPR News, erroneously reporting that Gabrielle Giffords had been killed in the shooting in Tucson some weeks ago. Our guests, Dick Meyer, NPR's executive editor for news; Arthur Brisbane, New York Times public editor; and Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see - we get Tom(ph) on the line. Tom with us from Tucson.
TOM (Caller): Yeah. Good afternoon. I'd like to point out a mistake that NPR has been making since this mass shooting here in Tucson on January 8th in which - I hate to put you on the spot, Neal - but you made just a few minutes ago at the opening of your introductory notes, when you said that - you referred to a terrible event like Tucson. I think it should probably read: a terrible event like the mass shooting in Tucson so that Tucson does not sound like it was the perpetrator.
CONAN: I understand your - what your thought is, and we, of course, shorthand in elision sometimes. And perhaps we do that not thoughtfully enough. And I thank you for the correction, Tom.
TOM: Thanks for listening.
CONAN: All right, bye-bye.
Arthur Brisbane, I wanted to turn back to you. You wrote something in addition to the Times' mistake about the facts about Gabrielle Giffords' shooting. You said there may have been another error, and that was the journalists' interest or immediate - almost immediate reading of this narrative as part of the broader narrative that had been going on for some time about political rhetoric, and whether it had gone too far. I thought that was a fascinating point.
Mr. BRISBANE: Well, thank you. I wouldn't characterize it as an error, but it was a reflex that I thought bore some scrutiny. Essentially, in a situation like this - where you have a major event - and in the case of an organization like the Times - where you have lots of resources - your objective is not just to report the breaking news. Your objective is to get out there and get the whole story, try to get the full breadth, get the full depth, get as much as you can.
And when you're doing that, there's - reflex is really the word, I think, that best describes it. You look for a frame to put the story in. It allows you to organize your thinking. It allows you to organize your theme. You may have more than one frame. You may have more than one theme.
In this case, a frame that was placed over the facts right out of the gate was the political angle - i.e., that the shooter may have been motivated by politics. And the sheriff there in Tucson certainly set the stage for this by talking about the, you know, the charged political environment.
But I felt like the Times jumped too quickly, too much on this angle, and perhaps missed an opportunity to see what ultimately did become the - I would suggest the salient angle, which was that the shooter was a person suffering from a mental illness, and that motivation existed outside of politics. So, you know, that's a common phenomenon in news.
I interviewed the dean of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Jerry Ceppos, and he described this framing reflex as genetic in journalists and arising out of a kind of generations of practice of having to act on deadline, having to frame up a story quickly. You know, if you're building a house, it pays to have a blueprint, and this is a little bit what happens in coverage in fast-breaking events like this.
CONAN: Kelly McBride, isn't that part of the journalist's DNA?
Ms. McBRIDE: Absolutely. And it's the best and worst thing about journalism. Part of the problem right now, with a lot of the information that we get in this new environment, is that it comes absolutely out of context. It's just delivered to us. And we, as consumers, are struggling to figure out what fits together and what doesn't fit together. So I think one of the roles for journalists is to provide context, and that's that frame that we're talking about.
The problem is when you too hastily jump to a frame that can't be supported, or you presume the priority of one frame over other frames. In this case, we had the sheriff who imposed that frame, but there's other ways of doing it as well.
CONAN: Kelly McBride, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.
Ms. McBRIDE: Thanks.
CONAN: Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute. Our thanks as well to Arthur Brisbane, New York Times public editor, who joined us from our bureau in New York; and to Dick Meyer, NPR's executive editor for news, here in Studio 3A.
Coming up, we're going to be talking about Congress - the size of it; do we need more politicians in Washington? It's "The Opinion Page," and you're listening to NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.