NYT Explains False Giffords Death Report

NYT public editor Arthur Brisbane explains how it came to pass that his paper reported as fact the erroneous news that Gabrielle Giffords had been killed.

NYT public editor Arthur Brisbane explains how it came to pass that his paper reported as fact the erroneous news that Gabrielle Giffords had been killed.

Here’s how the error was made. It was hectic in the newsroom with many news reports flowing in as Kathleen McElroy, the day Web news editor, was trying to decide whether The Times was ready to report Giffords’s death. She decided against it and was telling Web producers to hold off reporting it in a news alert when J. David Goodman, who was writing the story, told her he had a few changes he wanted to make.

Ms. McElroy said, “I should have looked at every change,” but she thought Mr. Goodman was referring to small stuff. Mr. Goodman told me he then erred by reporting Representative Giffords’s death in the lead as though The Times itself were standing behind the information. In any event, Ms. McElroy had said O.K. without seeing that change, so Mr. Goodman pushed the button.

The result was a news story with changes that were not edited. Less than 10 minutes later, a new story appeared with the words “and killed” stricken.

“Nobody should self-publish,” said Philip B. Corbett, standards editor for The Times. “Everything should go through an editor. Ideally, it should go through two editors.”

I agree with him, but that takes time. In the 1440/7 news cycle, and in the environment of the newsroom on Jan. 8, time seemed unavailable. On this particular day, things were happening quickly and simultaneously, and a mistake was made.

Having blogged for going on eight years now, facing exactly the same sort of pressure to get something out there NOW, I sympathize.  On the other hand, haven’t we been told all these years that the reason the mainstream press is so much better is that they have “three layers of editors”?   In this case, though, there was one editor.  And she did no editing.

Amusingly, there has been much more caution in reporting a comparatively minor story that I’ve been following all weekend:  The Dallas Cowboys’ hiring of a new defensive coordinator.   While it’s been pretty clear that Rob Ryan was the choice since Friday, the various media outlets covering the story have been very careful to report only the known facts.  Finally, once the last of the weekend’s playoff games was finished (with the New York Jets, coached by Ryan’s twin brother, Rex, defeating the New England Patriots) everyone began to report the hiring as a fact — but still attributing it to “multiple reports.”  Without official announcement from the club, no one was willing to go out on a definitive limb.

You’d think the NYT could afford to be a little more cautious on such a sensitive story. At very least, they could have emphasized in their lede that they were simply passing on unconfirmed reports from other press outlets.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. The Times was not the only news outlet to falsely report Giffords death that afternoon. NPR was, I believe, the first one to run with the story which was then picked up by the Times, as well as all the cable networks.

    Within five minutes, they realized it wasn’t true

  2. James Joyner says:

    Yeah, several outlets ran with it. CNN even sent out a Breaking News email alert. But, since they were able to confirm they were wrong within minutes, you’d think they’d have done so.

  3. Of course this isn’t the first time this has happened. I remember watching one of the news networks on the day Reagan was shot and, it was erroneously reported that James Brady had died.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Yup. ABC.

  5. anjin-san says:

    No mystery here. Tragedy is big news, especially a really sensational tragedy. After the 1989 earthquake in the news, multiple news outlets rushed to report that 300+ had died. In reality, it was about 60.

  6. jwest says:

    How does the NY Times explain the week-long false template reporting by them and the rest of the MSM that Loughner was influenced by talk radio and Sarah Palin?

  7. Pug says:

    I watched the CNN coverage of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake from the beginning, as soon as the World Series baseball feed went dead. In the first few minutes they reported all kinds of sensational things, like that the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge had “collapsed and were in the water” and that Candlestick Park had “collapsed”.

    None of it was true.

  8. Kylopod says:

    I remember watching the movie about Brady and the scene where his death is falsely reported. (I’m a bit too young to remember the event itself.) I wasn’t sure whether the movie was accurate until Doug offered his personal testimony.