Ari­zona shoot­ings high­light a dig­i­tal dan­ger

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

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 re­ports 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 om­buds­man@wash­post.com. For daily up­dates, read the omblog at http://voices.wash­ing­ton­post. com/om­buds­man-blog/.

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