< The Rush to Report


Friday, January 21, 2011

BOB GARFIELD: This week in California, there was a gunfire incident.


FEMALE CORRESPONDENT MEGAN: According to Twitter feeds, shots have apparently been fired at Gardena High School in Los Angeles.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: We know, Megan, there are three students who have been shot. And this is confirmed by the Gardena police. This is -

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT MEGAN: - maybe another student that was being held hostage in that classroom.


BOB GARFIELD: The original report stated three Gardena High School students had been shot in a classroom. A few minutes later came the news that the shooter was 18 years old. A subsequent report said the gunman apparently had taken hostages. Within 90 minutes of the original newsflash, police announced that they had arrested a 17-year-old student who had come to school with a loaded gun in his backpack. When he tossed that bag onto his desk, the gun discharged once and that bullet hit two classmates, not three classmates, two. No hostage situation, no shooter, for that matter. So what was gained by such news organizations as CNN, KTLA-TV in Los Angeles and USA Today to have been way out in front with the wrong information? It is that very question that faced NPR a week earlier when, amid the chaos of the Tucson shootings, it falsely reported the death of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.


NPR SPOKESWOMAN: In a fast-changing news situation with conflicting reports, we should have been more cautious. NPR News apologizes to the family of Representative Giffords and to you, our listeners. We deeply regret our error.

BOB GARFIELD: The network has been raked over the coals for violating its own guidelines and basic journalistic standards in the episode. Among the harshest critics was NPR’s own Scott Simon, Giffords’ friend, who called the error “reprehensible.” On January 9th, NPR Executive Editor of News Dick Meyer, apologized for the mistake. Dick, welcome to the show.

DICK MEYER: Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD: First of all, how did it happen? What’s the timeline?

DICK MEYER: We got information from the local sheriff’s office that the congresswoman had been shot and killed. Another source in a member of Congress’ office confirmed the same information. That was two sources. It wasn't two appropriate sources, two perfect sources. It was two sources that were wrong. And the team that was putting together that newscast went with it. One of the most consequential missteps in process that happened was that our procedure mandates that for reporting that kind of information, a senior editor should have been brought into the discussion. On something as crucial as a life-and-death announcement, you need more than two sources. You need absolute authority.

BOB GARFIELD: Did you face the question, why is it so important for NPR, or any other news organization, for that matter, to be the first with information that it just doesn't have absolutely nailed down? What’s the rush?

DICK MEYER: It’s a great question, and I think it’s a relatively easy one for NPR to answer, which is there is no rush. To be absolutely first is not a primary value in a situation like this for NPR. It’s much, much more important for us to be accurate and to be responsible. This was a very out-of-character mistake for NPR to make.

BOB GARFIELD: You weren't under the pressure of these 24-hour cable channels that are trying to advance a story in real time, live on the air, without any real new confirmed information coming in, so it was all the more shocking that NPR went on the air with something that was not confirmed at least at the level of the hospital staff or the family.

DICK MEYER: Your word choice of “shocking” that we'd made a mistake I think is hyperbolic, Bob. I think anybody who looks at NPR’s track record sees that it’s about as good as it gets in broadcast news or print news.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, maybe that’s why it was so shocking. What I wonder about is whether in this age of the 24-hours news cycle NPR was or is beginning to find itself feeling the competitive pressure to be first.

DICK MEYER: I don't think we're at risk just because we made this mistake of having our internal barometer changed. Now, we are at risk of being under siege for much more information than ever before. It makes it harder to report stories, and it makes the consequences of reporting errors graver because they multiply instantaneously. So we made this error and then it was picked up by social media, and it was instant viral. And I think this is gonna have the effect of making us ever more cautious. BOB GARFIELD: NPR has been in the news lately because of the Juan Williams fiasco, because of the resignation of Senior VP for News Ellen Weiss in the wake of the Williams episode, and all sorts of noise on Capitol Hill, once again, about defunding public broadcasting. From a political point of view, could an episode like this have possibly come at a worse time?

DICK MEYER: There’s no good time to make a serious mistake with reporting on the air. I mean, is this a rough period? Yeah. Will this mistake have enduring consequences for the defunding battle or anything else? No. I mean, we made a mistake. We took responsibility for it. I don't think it’s going to be held against us. I think people appreciate our candor. But it’s definitely a rough time for NPR.

BOB GARFIELD: One of the things we've learned from this incident was THE - about the false security of apparently official reports. One of the sources for your reporter was a sheriff’s deputy. I guess there’s many a reporter would say, he’s wearing a uniform, he’s investigating the case, that’s good enough for me. What are you doing to remind your staff that a badge does not necessarily confer omniscience?

DICK MEYER: We generally have a two- or three-source rule. But you have to look at the quality of the sources, whether they're really in a position to have firsthand definitive knowledge of what they're talking about. It’s a lot of judgment calls, and there are no automatics. Two wrong sources who are official doesn't do you any good.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay Dick, thank you so much.

DICK MEYER: Thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Dick Meyer is executive editor of NPR News.