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.

Because I was out and about with the family yesterday, I first saw the news of McNair’s death at YahooNews a half hour or so after it broke nationally and blogged my instant reaction immediately.

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.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Media, Obituaries, Sports, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. James, you establish by your own admission that there is a market for information whose veracity is perhaps inversely proportional to its immediacy, so perhaps the purveyors of “gossip” are just responding to what the public wants.

    How would delaying the news of Michael Jackson’s or Steve McNair’s death by six hours have affected any of these immediate information consumers’ lives? On a personal, as well as societal, level is immediate news junkie gratification worth the cost in accuracy? How is this making the world a better place?

  2. Eric Florack says:

    Inside the Michael Jackson story, hides a cautionary tale as well. After the story had settled down somewhat, The LA Times posted a question I thought revealed something that had they thought it through, would have caused them not to post the question at all:

    How would we have reacted if TMZ had been wrong about Michael Jackson’s death?

    I commented at the time, that it would likely be a lot louder than if the Times had screwed that one up, themselves. Note also that it’s a question I doubt we’d ever see TMZ ask. Ya see, we expect the MSM to screw things up.

    Had that gone down as posited by the Times, TMZ would have been called every name in the book, and the MSM, the Times included, would have been the ones leading the way. But if the L.A. Times had managed to foul that one up, it would’ve been passed off as some excuse or another; bad communication, bad information and the hurry to get the headline, and so on.

    The fact of the matter is that in Jackson and other recent cases, the mainstream media has succeeded in proving itself irrelevant to breaking news.

    Not just by its phony devotion to accountability, either.

    Let’s face it, with so many mainstream media outlets in the tank for Obama and the Democrat party anyone describing the mainstream media as accountable and unbiased will get laughed out of the room. Their fact finding in such matters has been questionable for decades now.

    But now, we see by way of this fast breaking stuff that their fact finding can’t stand up to the rigors of today’s communications, either. By the time they get around to telling us about it, it’s yesterday’s news, and thereby only good for birdcage liner.

    Which may explain, come to think of it, why the mainstream media is the last one to know of its own irrelevancy.

    And thing is, it’s been their own doing.

  3. But one thing blogging can do is report on the story as it develops from many, multiple sources. We can get online far quicker than MSM can report in print, on the air or even on their own sites.

    We can put out the basic facts as they become available and update frequently. That’s what I did and you can see how I progressed the story here.

    Like you, James, I prefer facts to rumors or gossip. But remember that news media don’t report what happened, they report what somebody said happened. What journalists and editors worth their salt will do is filter sources for credibility. If that makes them slower than Twitter, then it’s a good tradeoff!

    Yesterday, a lot of blogs were alive with the “news” that the dead woman with McNair was his wife, Mechelle. never was a named source mentioned, it was either just claimed by the b logger or vaguely attributed to insider sources.

    But the Nashville media never even reported that as a rumor. Instead, they properly refrained from speculation and voila, then appeared Mrs. McNair.

    If Technosailor thinks that amounts to a failure of the media, then he needs to get a grip. In fact, the Nashville media did a fantastic job covering this story. (I live not far from Nashville.)

    Media thrive on two things: primacy and recency. Each outlet wants to be the only outlet covering a story, the proverbial exclusive. If it can’t have that, it wants to be first with news and failing that the most recent.

    For some reason, it is breaking-news situations that make most outlets shine within that paradigm. When dealing with more analytic issues, the tend to flub rather badly. I think the reason is that reporting breaking news mandates waiting to be given information while “issues” reporting provides opportunities for reporters’ reflection, meaning biases, to creep in.

  4. Bobby J says:

    I saw reports that Michael Jackson died on Twitter and frantically searched for confirmation.

    Really? Frantically? It concerned you that much that you were frantic for information?

    Do you also subscribe to Us magazine? Because you sould like a junior high school girl.

  5. Franticly?

    Yes… As would any blogger hoping to be topical and leading edge of the news cycles.

  6. becca656 says:

    Send TMZ to find bin Laden.

    The guy wouldn’t have a chance.

  7. Awgljmwg says: