Accuracy in Media

Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander tried to explain how the Post got the Giffords shooting horribly wrong but really wasn’t to blame for doing so.

The Post’s first stumble was when 700,000 people who signed up for “Breaking News Alerts” were notified at 1:46 p.m. (EST) that Giffords had been shot.  That was followed by another alert 39 minutes later saying that she had been killed.  The first alert was attributed to NPR and the second to both NPR and CNN according to Alexander. But it was NPR’s report that CNN was relying on though Martin Savidge did tell viewers that they had confirmed Giffords death which only compounded the error.  NPR has since apologized for the erroneous reports.

Blaming the heat of the moment and NPR for the initial reports he left the paper relatively unscathed. But he did  take the paper  to task for leaving readers in limbo for another two hours when an alert went out that said :”Rep. Giffords in intensive care; doctor ‘optimistic.’ ”

First readers get two alerts in the span of 39 minutes and then noting for another two hours seems antithetical to the “breaking news” mantra of the alert system.

It was great news that Giffords was alive but there was no explanation according to Alexander on how or why the Post managed to bring her back from the dead which only left readers more confused.

Alexander also pointed to reader reaction to the incident.

“Not once has [The Post] retracted the story about Rep. Giffords’ death, corrected it or apologized for it,” e-mailed Damon C. Miller of the District. “I’m sorry, but an ‘implied’ retraction just won’t do! It seems as if The Post is trying to pretend that this grossly incorrect and tragic news had never been reported.”

Mr. Miller is right and Alexander wasn’t about to change anything just explain what happen so he is probably still not satisfied.

But who was responsible for the alerts?  Here is Alexander’s explanation:

Raju Narisetti, The Post’s managing editor for digital content, made the call on issuing the alerts. When news of the shootings broke, he faced a dilemma. Should The Post hold off on an alert until its reporters could nail down details on a story taking place about 2,000 miles away? Or should it send an alert citing well-established competitors and update later with The Post’s own reporting?

Narisetti decided to send the first two alerts, citing other news organizations. He told me the alerts “flagged our readers” to what was being reported by “clearly identified” major news outlets. He noted that the alerts provided a link to The Post’s Web site, where readers could get more in-depth information.

For those receiving alerts, he said, “the assumption is that if they’re interested, they will follow the story elsewhere,” on The Post’s Web site, television or social media platforms such as Twitter.

Even after other news organizations had backed off their reports that Giffords had been killed, Narisetti said The Post delayed sending another alert because its reporters were still getting conflicting reports of whether she was dead or alive.

So why not send an alert noting the contradictory reports? Narisetti said informing readers that there is “confusion” wouldn’t serve the purpose of a breaking-news alert, which he said is to “advance the story.”

Alexander concluded by saying that despite the conflicting alerts the paper did an impressive job covering the story and that issuing them was still the correct call.  The only criticism again was the delay in in informing subscribers about the fact that Giffords was alive and not dead as the earlier alert said.

For the Post and Alexander the blame for the inaccurate reporting is not to be placed on any individual at the paper but the pressure for the 24/7 news cycle and the “confusion” that often arises when trying to cover a story of this magnitude.

But that pressure is one that they placed upon themselves as ABC waited 15 minutes after the initial report to say that she was alive and the AP never issued an incorrect report as they weren’t satisfied with the information they had received. That proves the Post like several other news outlets rushed to report with verifying the information which the public expects them to do and that the blame clearly rests with them.

If there is any time when caution should be taken it is with a story like this involving the shooting of a U.S. Congresswoman.  To issue an alert about her death without confirming the information on their own is irresponsible and inexcusable and Alexander should know better than to cover for such poor reporting.

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