The shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and many others on Saturday during a special event in Tucson is a tragedy. Tragic because of the loss of life; because of the life-threatening wounds; because of the fear and uncertainty sown in the community; and because of disruption in the Federal government, and indeed, throughout the country.
Jared Loughner, the presumed assassin, is now charged on five counts, including attempted assassination. Information trickling in, such as Loughner’s YouTube videos, is revealing a troubled man with psychiatric problems.
My sadness for those killed and wounded and for their families is matched with a growing anger at the irresponsible, faulty and unprofessional manner in which the media reported breaking information to the world.
As of Saturday at 2:28 PM, Rep. Giffords was dead, according to the Washington Post, National Public Radio and the BBC. Then, at 4:16 PM, Giffords was alive and her doctor was “optimistic;” so reported the Post.
This is an egregious error. Reporting that a public figure is dead when she is alive is unacceptable and should be an embarrassment to NPR, BBC and the Post. Those media outlets that re-reported the entirely false information are also at fault for not doing their own reporting.
Now, everyone makes mistakes. A misspelled name; an incorrect statistic – these things happen in the rush to print. But this was no small mistake. It was one of the primary facts of the story.
The reason this error is so troubling is that the potential ramifications threaten a secure government and society. What if another troubled and violent person read that Giffords had died and was inspired by the tragedy to commit more atrocity? What if a close friend or supporter was so shocked and saddened that they inflicted harm upon themselves? What if? There’s no telling what kind of repercussions this unprofessional journalism could or will have.
In the social media environment, news (be it true or false) spreads like wildfire. That’s exactly what happened on Twitter. News of Giffords’ death rippled through the Twittersphere, compounding the Post et al’s error millions of times.
But the Post wasn’t done spreading misinformation. At 4:59 PM, the Post reported that Jared Loughner was a 22-year-old veteran. That’s not correct either. Not only was he not a veteran. He wasn’t even in the military. Loughner applied to the Army but was rejected. Again, the ramifications are endless.
Newspapers are in financial trouble across the country; the Internet is forcing the media to change business models and find new ways of reporting the news while also making a profit. There is no doubt that the remaining beat reporters in the United States are overburdened with work and struggling to keep their papers out of bankruptcy.
But a newspaper reporter has only one task – get the facts. That’s it. If a reporter can’t do that, they are not a reporter, and the paper for which they write is not a news source that can be trusted.
I hope apologies from NPR, BBC and the Post are presented to the world with the same rapidity as their false information.
The question is, will anyone believe them?