Media Fails in Matter of Life and Death

The cardinal rule of journalism is simple. Get it right or don't report it. Especially when it comes to matters of life and death.

This weekend during live coverage of the Tucson shootings the media -- in its rush to beat the competition -- got it wrong over and over again. Sadly, the errors -- including one-source reporting and anonymous sources -- are not isolated cases. In fact, the journalism bar has dropped so low that mistakes of this magnitude don't seem to cause a ripple of frustration let alone provoke anger from viewers or network executives.

The nation flipped from channel to channel Saturday watching anchors and breathless reporters regurgitate misinformation the likes of which could be expected on the 200th local broadcast market channel run by a just-out-of-college news director and intern reporters. These offenders are big, experienced news players beginning with NPR which reported: "U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was shot in the head and killed outside a grocery store in Tucson while holding a public event, Arizona Public Media reported Saturday."

On CNN, Martin Savidge also said "several people have been shot at a grocery store" when in fact the shooting location turned out to be a street corner. On Fox News, Shepard Smith said that police "are actively pursuing a white man in his 50s. He is not now believed to have acted alone." Fox later quoted "one very reliable source on Capitol Hill confirming that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has died." CNN "confirmed that the Congresswoman had been killed." The Washington Post pushed out a breaking news alert saying : "Reports: Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords killed at public event".

Minutes -- sometimes hours later -- came the correct information. One of the surgeons who operated on Giffords said, "I'm very optimistic аbουt her recovery." Really? We were just told by the "Worldwide Leader in News" that she was dead. A "very reliable source" told Fox News that she had died. There are very few appropriate times to quote anonymous sources. A live breaking story about the possible death of a U.S. Congresswoman is not one of them.

Retractions -- some hours later -- from all mistaken networks and websites began rolling in -- like this one from MSNBC: "While we reported that she is dead, this according to NPR, we've attributed them; she remains alive, no doubt, in very critical condition." Two hours after its initial report, The Washington Post alert said, "Rep. Giffords in intensive care; doctor 'optimistic'".

On Sunday, NPR explained its error. "The information we reported came from two different governmental sources, including a source in the Pima County Sheriff's Department. Nonetheless, in a situation so chaotic and changing so swiftly, we should have been more cautious. There were, obviously, conflicting reports from authorities and other sources. The error we made was unintentional, an error of judgment in a fast-breaking situation. It was corrected immediately. But we deeply regret the error."

The problem with NPR's explanation is something everyone in any newsroom already knows: Don't trust anything during a fast-breaking news story. Slow down and get it right.

When mistakes like this are made, pundits often blame "the 24-hour" news cycle saying that the cable nets have so much airtime to fill that repeating unconfirmed information is understandable. Another explanation, like that used by NPR, blames the chaotic situation. As a reporter who has spent considerable time in the chaotic trenches of breaking news tragedies, the excuses defy the discipline needed to accurately cover an event.

Why not wait? Where is the restraint, discipline and forbearance needed to provide accurate information? Fred Friendly, producer to Edward R. Murrow and former President of CBS News, once said what he believed to be the real reason for television news' rush to judgment: "Commercial television makes so much money doing its worst that it can't afford to do its best."

What is needed is a serious examination of news practices. We need apologies from the television "faces" delivering the misinformation and we desperately need news executives to adopt standards, policies and consequences for mistakes made. It's simply not acceptable anymore to hear the same talk show and columnist admonitions we have heard too often before. And in breaking news situations, the burden also must fall on officials to release basic information much faster.

The Congresswoman's heroic fight for life need not have included her premature "death."