Giffords shooting highlights a digital news danger

By Andrew Alexander
Friday, January 14, 2011;

In the digital age, speed can be the enemy of accuracy when a big news story breaks. The Post and other news organizations were reminded of that last weekend while rushing to report the shootings just outside Tucson.

For many, first word came from one of The Post's "Breaking News Alerts," sent digitally to nearly 700,000 people who have signed up to be notified of major happenings.

"Reports: Ariz. Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords shot at Tucson public event," read the alert headline at 1:46 p.m. (EST) that Saturday. Citing National Public Radio and local news reports, it said, "her condition was not immediately known."

The next Post alert, at 2:25 p.m., was heartbreaking: "Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords killed at public event." The news was attributed to NPR and CNN.

But alert subscribers were left scratching their heads nearly two hours later when they received an update that reported, without explanation, that she was alive: "Rep. Giffords in intensive care; doctor 'optimistic.' "

It turned out that initial NPR and CNN reports that Giffords had died were erroneous. Feeling pressure to report major breaking news that it could not independently confirm, The Post cited the two reputable competitors. In doing so, The Post's alert accurately reported information that was fundamentally wrong.

Some readers angrily complained about the false news of Giffords's death. Others were more upset that The Post offered no explanation of how its alerts went from Giffords being dead to being alive.

"Not once has [The Post] retracted the story about Rep. Giffords' death, corrected it or apologized for it," e-mailed Damon C. Miller of the District. "I'm sorry, but an 'implied' retraction just won't do! It seems as if The Post is trying to pretend that this grossly incorrect and tragic news had never been reported."

The contradictory alerts have sparked internal discussion among Post editors about when they should be issued, as well as about their purpose.

Raju Narisetti, The Post's managing editor for digital content, made the call on issuing the alerts. When news of the shootings broke, he faced a dilemma. Should The Post hold off on an alert until its reporters could nail down details on a story taking place about 2,000 miles away? Or should it send an alert citing well-established competitors and update later with The Post's own reporting?

Narisetti decided to send the first two alerts, citing other news organizations. He told me the alerts "flagged our readers" to what was being reported by "clearly identified" major news outlets. He noted that the alerts provided a link to The Post's Web site, where readers could get more in-depth information.

For those receiving alerts, he said, "the assumption is that if they're interested, they will follow the story elsewhere," on The Post's Web site, television or social media platforms such as Twitter.

Even after other news organizations had backed off their reports that Giffords had been killed, Narisetti said The Post delayed sending another alert because its reporters were still getting conflicting reports of whether she was dead or alive.

So why not send an alert noting the contradictory reports? Narisetti said informing readers that there is "confusion" wouldn't serve the purpose of a breaking-news alert, which he said is to "advance the story."

The conflicting alerts aside, The Post's overall coverage of the shootings was impressive. The deployment of reporters was immediate. By chance, two were already in Tucson on personal visits. Within hours, others were on planes headed there. Over the weekend, more than 70 Post journalists were involved in producing coverage, in print and on The Post's Web site, that was deep and authoritative on a story that drew heightened reader interest and scrutiny.

But did The Post err on the breaking-news alerts?

I think it was the right call to issue the initial alerts citing reports from other news organizations. On a fast-developing story of this magnitude, those who signed up for alerts should not have been kept in the dark.

But the alert that Giffords had died should have added that The Post was unable to independently confirm it. When there were indications that the repots of her death were inaccurate, that should have been noted in a new alert. And when The Post confirmed that she was alive, it should have issued another alert that directed readers to the Web site for an explanation of the confusion.

With an audience of nearly 700,000, lots of people needed to know. In this case, anything that kept them abreast of fast-changing information qualified as "breaking news."

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at For daily updates, read the omblog at http://voices.washingtonpost. com/ombudsman-blog/.

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