How NPR's Giffords Mistake Hurt The Families

UPDATE: 1/23 Dick Meyer, NPR's executive editor for news, appeared on Talk of the Nation to discuss the Giffords' mistake. Listen here.

UPDATE: 1/19 Morning Edition piece with Rep. Giffords' husband Mark Kelly, where he talks about hearing the news that his wife died.

Listen to the Morning Edition Story

TUCSON, AZ - A makeshift memorial in front of the supermarket where U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) was shot in the head. The mass shooting killed six and injured several others.

TUCSON, AZ - A makeshift memorial in front of the supermarket where U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) was shot in the head. The mass shooting killed six and injured several others. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

I've since learned what real, excruciating pain NPR triggered with its false news report that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died, which was repeated on npr.org, e-mail alerts, Twitter and picked up by other news organizations.

NPR correspondent Ted Robbins is based in Tucson. He was at the scene Jan. 8 when his cell phone rang shortly after NPR aired at 2:01 p.m. EST that Giffords died. The call was a friend, who is also a friend of Giffords.

The friend was sitting outside the hospital operating room with Giffords' mother Gloria, holding her hand.

"Please tell them to stop reporting she is dead," he begged Robbins. "She is in surgery."

Scott Simon, host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, got a similar call. Simon and his family are close friends of Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly.

At 2:08, a distraught family member called: "Scott, where the hell is NPR getting that information?"

"The close family member is a huge NPR fan or was," said Simon. "Until that moment, he found NPR more reliable than other news outlets. He had been told that Gabby was in surgery. But he was anxious, isolated, and wondered why NPR would report such a thing if it were not true."

Simon phoned the NPR news desk and was told the information was based on "confirmation" from the Pima County Sheriff's department and a congressional source.

He didn't think that was good enough.

"I couldn't fathom how cops or pols would know more than the hospital," said Simon. "Two sources who are not in a position to know something are not reliable sources."

Robbins also questioned why the NPR Washington staff didn't listen to their reporter at the scene.When he called news desk editor Denice Rios, she explained that NPR had two sources. He told her they were inadequate. Rios then pulled back on the reports and the network changed Giffords' status.

Simon called back the family member with the explanation he received from NPR's news desk.

Simon, who first believed NPR's report, also faced the emotional task of telling his two young daughters, who know Giffords well, that the congresswoman was dead, and later explaining that she wasn't.

"Take our pain and confusion and multiply by, oh, a hundred or so for the Giffords' family," said Simon.

After learning the report was wrong, Simon called the family member. "But I made no attempt to defend NPR," said Simon. "Someone believed for a moment that she had died. In fact, more than one person did. The mistake NPR made was reprehensible."

His wife, Caroline, noted that NPR and other news organizations often say the names of the dead are being held pending notifying the family.

"Why wouldn't the same judiciousness be exercised in a case like this?" asked Simon. "Doesn't greater public interest call for maximum scrupulousness? The public has a 'right to know.' But that right is pointless unless we give them reliable information."

NPR aired its incorrect report only once but then compounded the error by waiting until the next day to air a correction, accompanied by an apology from its executive editor, Dick Meyer.

On Jan. 13, managing editor David Sweeney sent an email to staff. Sweeney reminded them that reporting breaking news during a major event – such as a terrorist attack or a mass shooting – must be approved by a senior news manager. This extra layer of caution was not used in the Giffords' case.

Sweeney noted that what to report often involves "judgment calls," which is why NPR has longstanding rules about how many, and which, sources to use in its reporting.

"It is vital that we take every step now and in the future to make sure this doesn't happen again," Sweeney wrote. "I want to remind everyone that when it comes to standards about what we air and publish, it is always smart to err on the side of caution."

Simon thinks NPR's policy should be even clearer, and I agree. Simon sent these suggested operating principles to top management:

"There should be no room for doubt when a news organization declares someone dead. They should wait until the medical authorities directly involved declare death, or close family members announce it. There is simply no way that anyone else—not local police, not witnesses, not 'two governmental sources'—would be in a position to know for certain especially when there are now, between respiration and brain activity, at least a couple of medical gauges of death."

Correction Jan. 18, 2011

This story was updated at 4:31 p.m. to make clear that after NPR correspondent Ted Robbins told NPR's newsdesk that Giffords had not died, NPR changed its reporting.

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