Confusion overtakes the media

Erroneous reports of death broadcast

End Of A Papacy

April 02, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The week that began with a TV deathwatch over a 41-year-old Florida woman drew to a close with a television vigil for Pope John Paul II.

The story of what looked to be the pontiff's final hours quickly became a cable news event yesterday, with CNN, MSNBC and Fox News offering continuous coverage. From live pictures of windows at the Vatican residence and the gathering throng in St. Peter's Square, to health updates and reminiscences of Pope John Paul's life, cable news was in overdrive by midafternoon, when some stations erroneously reported that the pope had died.

At 1:23 p.m., a Fox producer who had been monitoring an Italian broadcast could be heard on-air saying, "The pope is dead. The pope is dead."

Fox News anchorman Shepard Smith reacted to the producer's words by saying, "Facts are facts, Pope John Paul II has now died."

But 20 minutes later, Smith backed off: "I should let people watching know, Vatican sources are telling Reuters television news service that the pope's brain and heart are still functioning. And, as we are wont to do in this lightning fast 24-hour news world, somebody along the way and myself included, has apparently gotten ahead of ourselves. ... The pope is by all accounts now alive. We are in the final moments - there is certainly no question, but what better time than this to reflect on that legacy."

A short time later, at 1:57 p.m., Smith issued an apology: "I want to take you back to what happened here a little while ago. As way of explanation, I am very sorry, which is all I can say except that we were listening to Italian television."

Others also provided reports that left viewers confused. MSNBC was the first to suggest that the end was near when at 12:31 p.m. it posted the words, "Pope lost consciousness" at the bottom of the screen, citing the Italian News Agency as its source, offering no other details.

CNN, which offered the most extensive coverage, with 125 staffers in Rome, added to the day's confusion by chasing the erroneous Fox report with a report at 1:25 p.m. CNN anchorwoman Betty Nguyen said: "We are learning from Reuters and Italian media that Pope John Paul II has died. Again, this information coming from Reuters and Italian media."

Delia Gallagher, CNN's Vatican analyst, responded: "The sources are generally reliable, but need confirmation," as text at the bottom of the screen said, "Reuters: Italian media reports that Pope John Paul II has died."

CNN emphasized that the reports were unconfirmed. But viewers weren't offered any sense of clarity on the pope's status until 1:55, when the Associated Press sent an alert to its subscribers that the Vatican had denied the pope was dead.

"There are a lot of conflicting reports ... and we apologize for the confusion," anchorman Miles O'Brien later said to CNN viewers.

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