3 things to learn from the “Tom Petty is Dead” debacle besides “check your facts.”

Rock legend Tom Petty died Monday at age 66 after suffering from cardiac arrest. What should have been a simple story got horribly complicated because a few news sources jumped the gun and declared him dead before he actually was.

TMZ, CBS and Rolling Stone were among the publications that reported Petty died in the afternoon. It turned out he was clinging to life but he was still alive. He died later that night, with an official confirmation from his spokesman that this was true, this time. However in the four hours between the first report and the actual death, the internet was flipping back and forth between him being alive and him being dead. Celebrities were providing condolences, which led other people to think that either he HAD died and the star knew something the rest of us didn’t or that everyone else knew something the star didn’t.

In short, it was a mess.

When it comes to a “teachable moment,” the obvious one is “Make sure you check your facts” or “Know what you’re talking about.” (Some reports called Petty’s ailment a “heart attack” which it wasn’t. Congestive heart failure, heart attacks and cardiac arrest are all somewhat different and here’s how.)  However, here are three other things journalism students can take away from this debacle:

  1. Once you press “send,” you can’t get it back: The line about false information attributed to Mark Twain was pretty accurate- “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” In today’s world of social media and digital speed, that lie has an even bigger head start. This is why we should always treat that “send” button like the “big red button” it is. Everyone out there issued corrections immediately upon finding out that the LAPD clarified Petty’s status, but that still didn’t stop the deluge of “Petty is dead” content. “Send” is serious business and one you send it out there, you can’t ever really undo it.
  2. You are part of an information ecosystem: Grade-school science classes show you how a bug eats some poison and then the bird eats the bug and the snake eats the bird and so forth, each time passing the poison along. In media, especially these days with easy access to other media outlets’ content, we operate in much the same way.
    Even in “pre-digital” times, we still had an ecosystem that could get messed up pretty easily. On more than one occasion, a reporter at a newspaper wrote a story that was really wrong. A reporter at a second newspaper in that town couldn’t get all the facts that first story had (mainly because it was wrong), but didn’t want to fall behind, so he “cribbed” information from the first story and then included it in his story with a vague “sources said” attribution. The morning radio news folks saw the story in BOTH papers so they did a “rip and read” approach and just rewrote the story for the morning newscast using that info. Suddenly, EVERYONE is reporting something that is factually inaccurate.
    You have a duty to your audience to be accurate, but you also have a role in a media ecosystem to maintain. If you put poison in to the system with lousy reporting, or if you perpetuate poison by passing along information you didn’t independently verify, you’re destroying that ecosystem and ALL OF US in that system will be worse for it.
  3. Real people can get really hurt when we’re wrong: In the case of Petty’s death, you could argue in a reductive sense that the publications weren’t really wrong, but instead they were early. The guy had congestive heart failure, he wasn’t recovering and hey… it was only four hours, right? Not even close.
    AnnaKim Violet Petty, Tom Petty’s daughter, was one of the people dealing with the situation when reporter of her father’s death began to roll in. He wasn’t dead, even as more and more people kept reporting it. In response to the ongoing throng of misinformation, she sent several messages and made several posts that show exactly how painful this was for her. Other family members and friends also likely experienced that painful dissonance based on media reports and their own knowledge of his condition.
    Journalists often want to break news, be first and show what we know to our audience. There isn’t anything wrong with that as long as we’re right, responsible and decent about it. As much as we think of famous people as being in the public domain, they have kids, spouses and friends who can get hurt if we overstep bounds or fail to fact check in our search for fortune and glory.

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