Errant death report has reporter feeling 'shame' for NPR

2011-01-21T00:00:00Z 2014-07-23T17:35:55Z Errant death report has reporter feeling 'shame' for NPRTom Beal Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 21, 2011 12:00 am  • 

NPR correspondent Ted Robbins was distraught this week after hearing Mark Kelly say that his "low point," in the aftermath of the shooting of his wife, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was when he and his family heard a news report that she was dead.

Kelly heard the "news" on television Jan. 8 as he flew to Tucson from Houston to be at his wife's side.

Those reports were following the lead of NPR, which reported at 12:01 p.m. Tucson time that Giffords was dead.

"We had the news on and it was reported that (Kelly's daughters') stepmother was killed, and we lived with that for about 15, 20 minutes," Kelly told Arizona Public Media as he held a series of interviews with Tucson media on Tuesday. "It was devastating to them and my mother ... and me."

Robbins, who is based in Tucson, was in the room when Kelly made those remarks to Arizona Public Media and he had more than professional reasons to feel bad.

"When my wife died three years ago next month, Gabby was among those who contacted me and offered support, wanted to know how I was doing, aside from condolences, and was really wonderful - a real mensch, a human being.

"So I deeply identified with the notion that Mark felt, even for 20 minutes, that his wife had died. And then I felt some institutional - shame, I guess, is maybe a good word."

Robbins was not responsible for the false report.

In fact, he was in the parking lot of the shopping center where the shootings occurred, demanding that his editors retract it.

Robbins had received a phone call from Tucson attorney Brad Holland, who was sitting with Giffords' mother outside the operating room at University Medical Center. Giffords was alive and in surgery, Holland told him.

Robbins called NPR in New York. "I had a conversation with Denise Rios, the editor on duty."

Rios told him she had two sources for the report.

"I said, 'That's not good enough.' I said, 'Stop it ... my source is an eyewitness.' And they stopped it."

NPR had based its reports on two unidentified sources.

Mark Moran, news director of Phoenix public radio station KJZZ, heard it from a source in the Pima County Sheriff's Department, and NPR Capitol Hill correspondent Audie Cornish heard it from a congressional source, said NPR spokeswoman Anna Christopher.

NPR reported the erroneous news on air only once. It was also posted on its website and repeated in e-mail alerts and on Twitter, according to a column by NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard.

It was briefly picked up by other news organizations, including CNN, Fox News, the New York Times and the Arizona Daily Star.

Robbins said he apologized to Kelly "for inflicting the pain on him and on her family. I apologized to him and I let him know that I was the one who put a stop to it, or at least tried to, but that that didn't excuse the behavior of the organization."

NPR Executive Editor Dick Meyer had apologized in NPR's newscasts and online the Sunday after the Jan. 8 shooting.

"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," Meyer wrote.

Christopher said NPR has "reaffirmed our policy to seek two sources, and best sources would be hospital or family member. We're also reinforcing the policy of getting approval on a senior-editor level."

The Arizona Daily Star was close to reporting Giffords had died on its website, StarNet, from its own sources when the news broke on NPR and CNN, said Editor Bobbie Jo Buel.

It posted a story reporting Giffords' death, attributing it to CNN and NPR, and then retracted it after hearing from Giffords' spokesman C.J. Karamargin, who said the congresswoman was alive and in surgery, said Metro Editor Hipolito R. Corella.

The report was corrected quickly, Corella said. "It was a matter of minutes. I couldn't tell you how many but if I had to guess it was maybe 10 minutes max," he said.

The time between reports could not be corroborated by the Star's computer records. The ever-changing story of Saturday's mass shootings was updated 168 times. Early versions of the story are automatically eliminated from archives to keep from overloading the system, said the Star's online editor, John Bolton.

Buel said she approved posting the report while driving to the Star's offices, about 10 minutes from her home. By the time she arrived, the erroneous report was being deleted.

"I was in on that decision and it was a terrible decision in hindsight," Buel said.

"I think what it reminds me of in a powerful way is we need to have multiple sources and a conversation among ourselves when there is something this significant that we're about to report."

Tucson TV station KVOA, Channel 4, also erroneously reported Giffords' death.

Bill Shaw, KVOA president and general manager, said his station retracted its error within 10 minutes.

"When we reported it, NPR, FOX News and CNN had already reported it," said Shaw via e-mail, noting that four independent sources gave reporters the wrong information about Giffords' status.

Star reporter Phil Villarreal contributed to this story. Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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