Tuesday, January 18, 2011

NPR and the Giffords Report

I wasn't listening to NPR on the day of the Giffords shooting and I just now learned how they apparently stepped in it bigtime, reporting that the Congreswoman dead when--of course--she was not: 
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?"...

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 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.”
Link. I'm actually impressed that NPR waited to get two sources--though I suppose Simon's proposed ramping-up is even better.   I also wonder if NPR would have backed away as fast as it did without the intervention of a heavy hitter.

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