Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Oklahoma City Station Shows Why Numbers Matter Following Tornado

KFOR Falls Victim to Running With Faulty Tornado Death Toll

Not sure if it was a question of wanting to be first, but KFOR-TV, the NBC affiliate in Oklahoma City, was a little too jumpy today in wanting to revise the casualty count from the tornado that devastated Moore yesterday.

The station has actually been doing yeoman work over the last 24 hours, as evidenced by what I've seen on the live stream. But this morning, it's website said the death count had gone from 51 to 91, vaguely attributing that jump to the medical examiner's office.

Ordinarily, that should be enough to go on. However, others were not so quick. The Daily Oklahoman was sticking with 51, as did KOCO, the ABC affiliate. That turned out to be the right move, as the death toll was revised downward to 24.

How did that happen. As KFOR briefly explained on its website, officials were double-counting. Fair enough, if somewhat irresponsible on the part of authorities. But before the station reported that number, it should have dug a little deeper. Where did another 40 bodies emerge from? Reporters were continuously on the scene at Plaza Towers elementary school, the scene of the worst devastation. However, no one reported a steady stream of bodies being removed, even though it was apparent the effort there was one of recovery rather than rescue not long after the storm.

These are things that matter. It's of small comfort that not as many people perished in the storm. But it would be even more wrenching for people still looking for loved ones or trying to account for a relative's whereabouts to fear the worst when they hear the death toll take a big jump like that.

We saw this during Katrina and Sandy. It happened after the Boston Marathon bombings. Lots of information being bandied about, but not enough facts to back it up.

I've been there. I know how it is. It's the instinct of any reporter to want to be first. But it's so much more important to be right. It's troubling that in times of crisis, it's a lesson the media needs to keep learning over and over again.

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