Mark E. Kelly, the astronaut husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head during Jared Loughner’s Arizona killing spree, heard unverified media reports that his wife died in the hospital after the shooting, he told ABC’s 20/20 last night. “And I just, you know, walked into the bathroom, and you know, broke down,” he said. Then he spoke on the phone to Giffords’ mother, who informed him that she was still fighting for her life. Her condition continues to improve. But NPR, who first reported Giffords’ death via “the Pima County Sheriff’s department and a congressional source,” gets a stern talking to from ombudsman Alicia Shepard for the “real, excruciating pain [the report] triggered.”
“Please tell them to stop reporting she is dead,” a family friend told an NPR correspondent over the phone that afternoon. “She is in surgery.”
On Jan. 13, managing editor David Sweeney sent an email to staff. Sweeney reminded them that reporting breaking news during a major event – such as a terrorist attack or a mass shooting – must be approved by a senior news manager. This extra layer of caution was not used in the Giffords’ case.
Of course, one wrong report can snowball, with Shepards acknowledging that reports of Giffords’ death were “repeated on npr.org, e-mail alerts, Twitter and picked up by other news organizations.” Thankfully, they were greatly exaggerated.