Free Markets, Free People

Was it bias or lack of time that caused the NYT to get the Giffords story so wrong? Or both?

The New York Times public editor, Arthur Brisbane, engages in a little self-criticism of the Times.  It is about the Giffords shooting, and it highlights one of my critiques of the media for years.

That is, it feels the need to get the story out first rather than getting the story out right.  Or perhaps “feels the need” isn’t the right way to say that – the media has devolved into an industry where getting the story out first has become more of a priority than getting it out right.

The Giffords shooting and the Times give us the perfect case study.  First the premise:

JIM ROBERTS, the assistant managing editor who has helped create today’s, likes to call it the 1440/7 news cycle — 1,440 minutes every day, seven days a week, each one of those minutes demanding news for delivery to a networked world.

In a word – wrong.

I don’t know about you, but as a consumer of news, what some might call a news junkie, I’m not demanding “news for delivery” in every one of those minutes.  Heck, I couldn’t absorb that much news – nor could anyone else.  What I want is factual, complete and comprehensive news delivered when it is ready to be delivered – i.e. confirmed and out of the realm of rumor.

In the case of the Giffords shooting the Times failed miserably at meeting my demand.  Brisbane details the failure.

A major breaking news event, occurring on a Saturday afternoon with a small staff on duty, with print deadlines to worry about and a Web site that needed to be fed as fast and as frequently as possible.

The Times’ first online posting came at 1:47 p.m., followed by two quick updates — at 1:53 and 2:16. These stories, pieced together from other news organizations that were on the ground in Tucson, reported the shootings and other basic facts, attributing word of the shooting to the congresswoman’s spokesman, C. J. Karamargin. At this point, her condition was described as “unclear.”

At 2:27, though, the story was revised to say Ms. Giffords had been shot and killed, attributing the information to Mr. Karamargin and “news reports.” Lower in the story, those news reports were identified as coming from NPR and CNN. As it turned out, the information was incorrect. The Times compounded the error by appearing to attribute it in part to Ms. Giffords’s own spokesman, who was not the source of the error.

Or said another way, the Times got it completely wrong and really didn’t know they had.  The question then is this – did anyone get on the phone to NPR and CNN or Rep. Giffords spokesperson and try to confirm the details?  Apparently not.

Enter the infamous “3 layers of editors”:

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.

And suddenly, the Times was reporting, unedited, the death of Giffords.

Brisbane entitles his critique, “Time, the enemy”.  I call BS.  It wasn’t time that was the enemy, it was the unspoken premise that says “it is more important to get it out first than to get it out right” that seems to have infiltrated the media.  Brisbane sort of admits to that in another paragraph:

The Tucson shootings afforded another, quite different illustration of the pressure of time in news coverage — not pressure measured in seconds and minutes, but pressure that news organizations feel to define the context of a story, to set up a frame for it, sometimes before the facts can be fully understood.

Note his choice of words.  “define the context of a story” – “to set up a frame for it”.  He claims that has to be done “sometimes before the facts can be fully understood’”.

Really?  How in the freakin’ world does one “define the context of a story” without knowing the facts?  Well, as it turns out, they’re reduced to making assumptions and those assumptions, in the case of Giffords, were wrong.

The Times’s day-one coverage in some of its Sunday print editions included a strong focus on the political climate in Arizona and the nation. For some readers — and I share this view to an extent — placing the violence in the broader political context was problematic.

It wasn’t “problematic”, it was, as one reader claimed “a rush to judgment”.  So what was that rush to judgment based on?

One would have to assume, given the Times admits it didn’t have all the facts, it was based in bias.  How else does one “set up a frame” for a story for which it admittedly doesn’t have all the facts or “before the facts can be fully understood”?  You go with what you believe to be true, that’s how.

And, apparently, that’s precisely what the NYT and a whole bunch of other news organizations, politicians, pundits and bloggers did.

So strong was this bias that the Times admits it missed even more facts available and germane to the story:

Meanwhile, opportunities were missed to pick up on evidence — quite apparent as early as that first day — that Jared Lee Loughner, who is charged with the shootings, had a mental disorder and might not have been motivated by politics at all.

Fancy that – with the story framed the way the bias dictated, the Times wasn’t looking for facts that might contradict or dispute their frame. 

Is that what happened?  Well, not according to Brisbane.  You see, it was a function of “framing protocols” developed “generations ago”.

My, my – you mean like this nonsense?  If this is the function of generational framing protocols it would seem to me media organizations would be taking a serious look at modifying them.

Jerry Ceppos, dean of the journalism school at the University of Nevada, Reno, said journalists’ impulse to quickly impose a frame on a story is “genetic.”

“Journalists developed automatic framing protocols generations ago because of the need to report quickly,” he said. “Today’s hyper-deadlines, requiring journalists to report all day long and all night long, made that genetic disposition even more dominant.”

Nonsense. It may be "genetic" to an organization, but it is hardly "genetic" in the real sense to reporters. It is what is demanded of them by the media organization. And when that is what is demanded, inaccurate stories and bias are what you will get. And that’s precisely what the Times got.

A self-imposed dictum of "publish or die" has overridden that of "get the facts, corroborate them and get the story right" that should be dominant in any media organization. This internal requirement to "get it out first" instead of "get it out right" has naturally led to short-cuts – like pre-conceived frames which can be imposed even "before all the facts are understood".

The editors simply make assumptions based on what they initially have heard and then select the "facts" that support those assumptions. In short, they establish a bias and then "support" it. Brisbane’s two pages of equivocation and "transparency" aside, that’s the short version of what happened.



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25 Responses to Was it bias or lack of time that caused the NYT to get the Giffords story so wrong? Or both?

  • Can you say … REDO ? The Times outs Jered Loughner as a “Bush Hater”…

    But Jared, a curious teenager who at times could be intellectually intimidating, stood out because of his passionate opinions about government — and his obsession with dreams. He became intrigued by antigovernment conspiracy theories, including that the Sept. 11 attacks were perpetrated by the government and that the country’s central banking system was enslaving its citizens. His anger would well up at the sight of President George W. Bush, or in discussing what he considered to be the nefarious designs of government.

    WOW!! Just wow!

    • All the new fit to print … and anything else we can think up till we get the real story … and then possibly ignore it.

    • Will we now get Krugman, admitting that they didn’t know their a$$ from their elbow on this? (He asked rhetorically…)

      No, it’ll be more “both sides do it” moral equivalence posturing. That’s all these fools know how to do.

      • No, it’ll be more “both sides do it” moral equivalence posturing. That’s all these fools know how to do.

        As in: “But Mommmmm, all the kids do it!”.
        Yeah, the “adults are in charge”.

    • “a curious teenager who at times could be intellectually intimidating”

       Intimidating, perhaps. *Intellectually* intimidating, I doubt it.

  • Great break-down, Bruce. But I think you took it too easy on the NY Times. The “short staff” nonsense is a lame excuse. The one staffer who was responsible for editing the “revised” Giffords story failed to even glance at the new lead … which stated her death! That’s not a change to a story, that’s a new story. And it could have been caught in literally 3 seconds of reading.
    The was this ombudsman handles the “framing” issue is also lame. He should just come out and say that perhaps organs like The New York Times should consider waiting a day before “framing” a story to fit their assumptions. For Pete’s sake, there was still blood on the ground — and the Times was struggling to get the basic facts right — yet it was “framing” the story as an indictment of the left.
    Hubris is as much a problem for the MSM as bias.

    • The was this ombudsman handles the “framing” issue is also lame. He should just come out and say that perhaps organs like The New York Times should consider waiting a day before “framing” a story to fit their assumptions. For Pete’s sake, there was still blood on the ground — and the Times was struggling to get the basic facts right — yet it was “framing” the story as an indictment of the left.

      >>> Maybe if they had some of that “intellectual diversity” working there, someone could have called BS on the “frame” (and how appropriate THAT word is in this case!)

  • Because the false story has come to light (after the general public has moved on a long time ago) the Times needs to do some CYA.  They are trying to imply the false story built around Loughner’s motivation is in the same category at the bungled facts of who was shot and how severe the injuries were.  The bungled facts were fixed in less than a day.  The narrative of his motives went on long after that and long after sufficient facts bled out via the internet to correct that narrative.
    This wasn’t a case of rushing a story and filling in the gaps with their bias.  This was pushing an anti-Tea Party narrative quickly and crossing their fingers they could make it stick or hold off correcting the narrative until the general public moved on caring about the story.
    This wasn’t a biased news service’s report.  It was propaganda.  And its happened with multiple stories where violence is connect to the Tea Party with the truth coming out after the public attention has moved on.  And most times there isn’t even the equivalent of a ‘page six’ retraction of any kind.  The truth about his motives by his friends and the fact they can’t be led into a version that is consistent with its the Tea Party’s fault is probably why they need to do a retraction.  That and Loughner himself probably going to the loony bin instead of prison.  If it wasn’t for that, there wouldn’t be one.

    • jpm100They are trying to imply the false story built around Loughner’s motivation is in the same category at the bungled facts of who was shot and how severe the injuries were.  The bungled facts were fixed in less than a day.  The narrative of his motives went on long after that and long after sufficient facts bled out via the internet to correct that narrative.

      Excellent point.  They committed two sins and are trying to pass it off (and get forgiveness) for the less deplorable one.

    • First Piven starts off by claiming that it’s [the Tea Party] all about, age, then race, and then it’s all about wealth — and then it’s all about race again.  She then decides that it’s all about sex, with explaining that this is based on the solid social-science method of pulling assumptions out of thin air…

      This is all projection based on their experiences with movements of the Left (i.e. civil rights, anti-war, etc). They know all the “short cuts” that were taken in their days in these movements and assume that it must be happening with the most recent political movements like the Tea Party.
      The whole notion of “sex” being a basis for the Tea Party goes back to the 60’s when guys hung out with Leftie females to get easy sex.  Obviously, Frances Fox Piven must have been on the receiving end, and therefore assumes it is what propels the Tea Party.

  • Well, I suppose when you miss the fact that an emerging presidential candidate, poised to overtake the annointed Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, has for twenty years been a committed fulltime participant at a church based in a Marxist and racist “theology,” why, you could probably miss anything.

  • Haven’t we seen this apologia from the Times (and other papers) before though?  They mess up (or absolutely miss) a story badly, get humiliated for it, then complain that “time” was the enemy and they’ll do better next time.


    They saw a story, it just HAD to be true, they ran with it, they didn’t care.  And Krugman merely stripped away any fig leaf of pretense otherwise.

    Dear NYT Ombudsman:  Eff You, and everyone at your paper.

    • I don’t see where they are promising to do better next time.  The vibe I get from it is that this is what they need to do to get the news out as fast as possible, and that it is prone to the occasional ‘mistake.’  They don’t want to change the way they deal with breaking news stories, they want you to let them off the hook when their desire to get news out first winds up trampling the truth.
      I assume that this is typical of the news media.  if FOX had done this, I figure that they’d offer up the same non-apology for it, though I am sure that the NY Times would have a field day ripping them for their lack of integrity.
      In any case, the Times is saying now that they (and the rest of the mainstream media) didn’t really push the ‘blame right wing rhetoric’ angle.  That was bloggers doing that, not the professionals!  The backlash from the coverage of the Tuscon shootings has them running for cover and throwing excuses at the wall in the hopes that something will stick.  See

  • the infamous “3 layers of editors”

    The odds are that two of those layers have already been laid off

    • The other two layers of editors were the hacks at NPR and CNN, who were just as lax in their fact checking.  The 24/7 news cycle includes way too much passing of stories areound the circle,  as if citing another news organizations is authoritative.

  • Whether it was carelessness or calculation, and however much the Loughner smear failed, the affair has paid handsome dividends for Obama and his supporters.

    The momentum of the new Republican Congress has been broken and Obama has reburnished his centrist, peacemaker credentials. That’s the bottom line IMO.

  • This has been going on for years. Long ago I learned that for at least the first 24 hours of any story like this the media just spreads rumors. The only thing you can rely on is a one sentence summary of the event and, perhaps, video coverage.
    When Reagan was shot, for instance, one of those highly paid and oh-so-competent anchors got a news flash. One of their network people had snuck onto an upper floor of the hospital and overheard someone in a white coat talking about open heart surgery. Of coursed this immediately became a hot topic and the anchor asked a surgeon sitting next to him, who had been providing time filling medical blather, about open heart surgery and what the implications were. You could almost hear the poor surgeon sweat as he hemmed and hawed and tried to explain without causing even more hysteria.

    In short, after hearing the one short headline sentence about a major event you would be better informed by  turning off the TV and reading a book until the next day.

  • Hmmm… The first thing I heard was that the shooter was an Afghan War vet.
    Interesting, isn’t it, that the original reporting was virtually 180 degrees from the actual facts?

  • I treat fast-breaking news stories the same as I do screaming matches between my children. Sit back, relax, wait a few moments, then ask questions to figure out what really happened.

    • That’s pretty much what I do as well – I let it settle out a bit. Of course, we’re not a breaking news site so I have no need to rush into it. And that’s what’s kind of interesting about all the lefty blogs that picked this up from the get-go – they had no reason to rush into it either. Well, other than seeing it as an opportunity to be “civil” to the right. /sarc

  • Obama said, correctly, on Wednesday that “a simple lack of civility” didn’t cause the Tucson tragedy. It didn’t cause these other incidents either. What did inform the earlier violence — including the vandalism at Giffords’s office [which Rich just noted was NOT determined to even BE vandalism…much less ascribed to anybody] — was an antigovernment radicalism as rabid on the right now as it was on the left in the late 1960s. That Loughner was likely insane, with no coherent ideological agenda, does not mean that a climate of antigovernment hysteria has no effect on him or other crazed loners out there. Nor does Loughner’s insanity mitigate the surge in unhinged political zealots acting out over the last two years. That’s why so many — on both the finger-pointing left and the hyper-defensive right — automatically assumed he must be another of them.

    Let’s say…for chuckles…that there is ANY verity in the  “genetic hair-trigger” theory of the unhinged MSM.
    How does one explain Frank Rich last Saturday???

  • The one and only Grover Cleveland had some issues with the media, too.   Here is a transcript of an interview he gave to the Daily Continent, New York, April 12, 1891:

    “I believe a large majority of reporters are decent and honorable men, who would prefer to do clean and respectable work. Of course there are some among them who are mentally and morally cracked, and who never ought to be trusted to report for the public anything they claim to have seen or heard. Eliminate these, and I do not think any of the remainder would deliberately indulge in downright barefaced falsehood; but there is something connected with their work that they appear to think is necessary to its complete finish, which, for want of a better word, may be called embellishing. This proceeds so far, sometimes, that, almost unknown to himself, the reporter falls into mischievous and exasperating falsehood–sometimes lacking the intent to annoy and injure and sometimes not. There ought to be much less of this. The reporter who sends in these extravagant embellishments can never know when they may constitute the most outrageous injury to the feelings of the innocent and defenseless.
    But, as a general rule, the responsibility for all that is objectionable in the reportorial occupation should be laid at the doors of the managers and owners of newspapers. If they wanted fair and truthful reports, they would be furnished them with more alacrity than they are now supplied with the trash so often demanded as a test of the reporter’s skill and ability.
    Good, clean journalism and a proper sense of newspaper responsibility , prevailing at headquarters, would so raise the standard of the duties of those remaining that they would not only be gladly welcomed by all who have information interesting to the public to impart, but would be received, without the suspicion of intrusion, at any place where legitimate news would be collected.”

  • sometimes before the facts can be fully understood.
    I’ll decide how I want to understand the facts. How about if you just get them right?