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?

Justin Hienz is Editor for Security Debrief. He blogs primarily on radicalization, aviation security, religious and Middle Eastern affairs, and communications. Read More
  • Seal

    BS – Blame the media for a minor error to deflect the real issue which is inciting the crazies out there to violence.

    • Seal

      Who are you suggesting is trying to incite individuals to mass murder?

    • Eddiemac99

      MINOR error? A death of an elected official is a MINOR error? Please.

  • Chris Battle

    Your comments are spot on, Justin. The American media establishment, the American law enforcement community, and the American political establishment, has failed us miserably in this incident in trying to report a story without facts, offer motive without evidence, and assigned partisan blame without decency. The whole thing is shocking.

  • ladybroadoak

    This story is too “new” to really say what the ramifications actually are.

    But the unprofessionalism of the press is absolutely shocking. Facts were not CONFIRMED.

    But even that takes a back seat to the ideology exposed; we have no clear idea of the victims of the shooting, the injuries received and what may happen when their disabilities, symptoms, pain, etc are known. No one even attempted to find out who they are.

    What happened to the 5 w's?

    Focusing on why before facts is just SO shoddy. Everyone just jumped in with their prejudices and tried to play “expert” – they are not psychiatrists or pundits or anything. Just hacks.

    Seems to me on threads I saw posted, most were just trying to avoid the grief PROCESS.

    More will become obvious in coming days, though.

  • Guest

    1. Fox News also reported that Rep. Giffords had died, citing a source of their own and NPR report. Strange that you failed to mention that in your blog. Here's the quote from the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson in the article “Giffords story: A lesson in leaping to conclusions”: “Fox News Channel's Bret Baier said on the air at 2:18 p.m. that NPR and one of his own sources reported that Giffords was dead.”

    • jhienz

      I don't watch or follow Fox News, one reason being that I don't trust the accuracy of their reporting, case in point. Thanks for reading and for the comment.