Failure of Breaking News Reporting?
Aaron Brazell argues that, with the advent of instant-reporting of rumor via Twitter and other social media, the mainstream press has fallen behind. He cites yesterday’s Steve McNair murder, the false rumors that Jeff Goldblum had died, and Michael Jackson’s death.
He laments that, while the McNair news broke on two Nashville stations but “It was a long time (30 minutes or so) before national media picked it up. ESPN, the Worldwide Leader in Sports by their own slogan, didn’t have it. No one did. We were left gasping for more. Is the rumor true? Can anyone confirm? Can police confirm?”
Major media got a little jittery in the past. After 9/11. With other reports that turned into an overcompensation. Fact is, major media can safely report on a rumor as long as it is billed as such. No one has to say that this is confirmed. But people want to know. We get our news on the internet.
We find out about things happening in Iran via Twitter. We find out about Michael Jackson dying… on Twitter. We read blogs that deal with Sarah Palin’s awkwardly bizarre resignation at Alaska governor. We’re not watching your TV stations. We’re not in Nashville. Welcome to the global economy.
Report the damn news and report it as a rumor to hedge your bets. But report the news.
I saw reports that Michael Jackson died on Twitter and frantically searched for confirmation. I did a Breaking News blog post reporting that 1) LA Times had Jackson hospitalized and that 2) several reports that he was dead, all sourced to TMZ, were out. I updated it shortly thereafter with news that multiple legitimate sources were confirming.
(I saw the reports of Goldblum’s death on Twitter, too, but they were debunked in near-real-time.)
With rare exception, I prefer that the mainstream press report known facts rather than rumors.
People seeing rumors of Jackson’s death on Twitter or TMZ who much cared were presumably searching for confirmation on their own just as I was. Otherwise, I’m not sure what harm is done to the collective pool of knowledge by having it reported that Jackson was rushed to the hospital — a known fact — and waiting 30 minutes or an hour or so to report that he was dead once that was confirmed. Conversely, falsely reporting that someone has died has serious consequences.
The McNair story is slowly unfolding as a bizarre soap opera, with alternate reports of murder-suicide and double homicide. While McNair was undoubtedly an important figure in the world of sports and his murder in the prime of life constitutes breaking news in Nashville and Baltimore (where he played professionally) and for sports pages, I’m not sure what harm there is in taking 30 minutes to gather facts on such a sensitive story.
Indeed, the Goldblum rumor provides a classic cautionary tale. I for one am rather glad that false reports of Goldblum’s death weren’t flashed on the crawl of every TV show in America.
Like Aaron, I’m a news junkie. I want my information now. But unconfirmed rumor is not news; it’s gossip. If TMZ is wrong about Jackson’s death, nobody will much care; it’s a gossip rag. If the LAT gets it wrong, though, it loses credibility as a news organization.
There are certainly times when reporting speculation is required. If, for example, there were reports about an attempt on the life of the president, it’s a national crisis that demands instant reporting. There were all manner of false reports, for example, when President Reagan was shot, notably the reporting that James Brady had been killed when it turned out he was just horribly wounded. Similarly, the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks demanded 24/7 wall-to-wall coverage and reporting of “facts” as they came in.
Rumors that pop singers and retired athletes have died, however, can go unreported for a few minutes while reporters do some rudimentary fact checking.
Photo by Flickr user Joost Strootman under Creative Commons license.