National Public Radio made the worst mistake imaginable in its coverage of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting on Saturday.
In the mad stampede to report the latest developments from the tragedy, NPR was first to break word that the congresswoman had died from her injuries about an hour after the shooting. Crediting sources from both the Pima County Sheriff's and a congressman's offices, NPR blasted the story on air, over Twitter, and across its Web site.
The news about Giffords' death, as we soon found out, turned out to be wrong. Giffords was very much alive, albeit in critical condition, and NPR wound up retracting the news within minutes of reporting her supposed death. The dominoes, however, had already fallen. Media outlets like CNN, Fox News, and the New York Times ran with the story for hours.
The screw-up demonstrates that -- in this split-second age of reporting across Twitter and the social-media landscape -- news agencies may be more susceptible to errors than ever. (Media wags have compared NPR's gaffe to when ABC News erroneously reported the shooting death of Ronald Reagan's press secretary James Brady in 1981).
NPR executive editor Dick Meyer issued an online mea culpa on Sunday, apologizing for what he called "a serious and grave error.
"In a situation so chaotic and changing so swiftly, we should have been more cautious," he wrote. "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."
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Meyer continued, "Already all of us at NPR News have been reminded of the challenges and professional responsibilities of reporting on fast-breaking news at a time and in an environment where information and misinformation move at light speed. We learn, we redouble our efforts and dedication and move forward with our best efforts for the millions who rely on us every day.
David Folkenflik, NPR's media commentator, attempted to minimize the damage over the weekend via Twitter, stating that the situation was an example of "the process of reporting breaking news, at times shakily, in real time."
"News orgs should be aggressive in reporting; conservative in printing/broadcasting/posting; transparent about how they get what they get," he tweeted. "But to say sources -- even seemingly authoritative sources -- can't themselves get things wrong in the heat of moment ignores reality."
Calls to both Meyer and NPR spokesperson Anna Chrisopher for comment were not immediately returned.