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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
The idea of “stupid criminal stories” is as much a staple of the crime beat as first-graders doing hand-print turkeys for Thanksgiving is for the education beat. Readers can seemingly never get enough of this kind of stuff, whether it’s the man arrested on suspicion of smuggling monkeys in his pants or the woman who showed up for her drunken driving court appearance drunk. Cranking out these stories is simple, as the leads tend to write themselves and they drive traffic to your site from all over the world.
However, as we talk about in the book, there is an ethical standard we ascribe to as journalists and within that standard is a call for empathy. Hunter Pauli took a hard look at his work in this piece, recalling the saga of “Dickface,” a low-level criminal in Butte, Montana with an unfortunate facial tattoo. The question he asks is a good one: What the heck are we doing here and why are we doing it?
We should be thankful small places in America are safe enough to not always need a daily update on last night’s mistakes, but instead we blow small crimes out of proportion and ruin people’s lives for pennies, all while missing the big picture.
The question, “What am I doing and why am I doing it?” is at the core of the critical thinking we preach here. Keep it in mind the next time you read about a guy who tries to rob a store with a banana (and then eats it instead).
In one of my favorite annual reads, “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton, the author and several of his teammates on the Houston Astros are discussing the issue of race. One man comments that he wouldn’t mind so much that the press described him as “the black first baseman” if they would just refer to his counterpart as “the white first baseman.” Instead, he was just “the first baseman.”
I thought of that this morning in reading a story of an early morning shooting in one of my old hometowns when I hit this paragraph:
Police spokesman Joel DeSpain told the State Journal that the victim, a 29-year-old black man from the Madison area, was in the driver’s seat of a car parked on Adderbury Lane, and was shot multiple times.
If you comb through the rest of the story, there is no other mention of race or any indication as to why this inclusion of race was important to telling the story. It just shows up and then the story moves on.
The issue of race, gender, sexual orientation and “othering” in the media is well beyond my area of expertise to speak about at length. (I’m hoping to have guest bloggers over the next several months who focus on each of these areas come here to discuss these issues.) I also refuse to become outraged on the behalf of others or point this out as the reason journalism is going to hell in a Ferrari. However, just like everything else on this site, the point is to help beginning journalists learn and here are a few quick suggestions on things to think about before including race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other descriptor that doesn’t add value but does point out how someone is “different:”
- Would you use the descriptor if the race/gender/ethnicity/sexual orientation etc. were reversed? One of the leads that has stuck in my head for the longest time was this:
“Wisconsin congressman Steve Gunderson, one of the few openly gay members of Congress, will start a new consulting job in the nation’s capital on Jan. 6”
I have yet to see a lead that starts off with, “Bill Smith, a straight guy, will be opening a chain of restaurants in the greater Chicagoland area this fall.”
If the reason for mentioning sexual orientation is crucial, make it clear right where you mention it. The same thing is true for any other descriptor meant to draw attention to race, ethnicity or anything else along those lines.
- Does the descriptor add anything of value to the story you are telling? I worked at various places that varied on whether or not to include race in a description. One place had a “four-item rule,” in which any crime story that described an “at-large suspect” must include at least four distinguishing features before we included race as a characteristic. For example:
Police are seeking a white man in his early 40s, who is 5-foot-9 and 260-280 pounds. He has a shaved head and a goatee and a tattoo of a lizard on his right hand. He fled the store in a 1991 red Pontiac Firebird.
In this one, you get several “unchangeable” characteristics (height, weight, age, tattoo) as well as some other characteristics that might help distinguish him from other similar people (shaved head, goatee, specific car).
The goal in descriptors, especially in crime stories like the one described here, is to describe an individual, not a group of people. It also helps to describe criminals who people might spot and be able to help the police find.
In the story listed above, the race is used to describe the victim, not someone who police need help finding.
In short, just like everything else, have a reason for adding something to your story before you do it.
- Can the descriptor reinforce a negative stereotype regarding the larger group without adding significant value to your story? In 1996, basketball announcer Billy Packer was once calling a Georgetown game when he called attention to his tenacious play by referring to Iverson as “a tough monkey.” Racists have often used ape-based comparatives when demeaning African-Americans, leading to a larger discussion of what Packer meant by his description. (Packer stated repeatedly he did not mean this in a racial way.)
Certain story types can reinforce stereotypes based. Race and crime, gender and sport, equality and sexual orientation are just a few areas in which a pointless “othering” do more harm than good.
This doesn’t mean you should never use a descriptor for fear of stereotyping a group of people. If an at-large criminal has held up six convenience stores and you have a strong description of him, not using race for fear of stereotyping doesn’t make sense. However, you should always weigh the value of the descriptor against the potential negative outcomes of using it.
The accusations of “fake news” and “Photoshopped” images aren’t new and they aren’t always without merit, even in the field of news journalism. One such case of “news” manipulation in 2003 caused a 24-year-old sports editor to lose his job after he inserted quotes from the movie “Caddyshack” into a golf story. However, it isn’t always inexperienced journalists or humor gone wrong that leads to manipulation. In 2014, a Pulitzer-prize winning photographer lost his job after he removed part of an image through “cloning.” The L.A. Times fired a photographer in 2003 when he submitted a “composite” image from Iraq as an actual photograph, one that seemed to demonstrate tension between soldiers and some Iraqi citizens.
The instances of “fake” or “manipulated” images clearly damage the credibility of the individuals involved as well as the overall reputation of journalism as an industry. The biggest concern is that of the “boy who cried wolf” issue, in which real photographs and real stories, especially those that strain credulity, will be ignored or treated as “fake.”
A recent study into photo manipulation found that people often can’t tell when an image is faked, manipulated or otherwise untrue. The researcher noted that some obvious shifts, like changes to background shapes, were more easily detected, but subtle shifts like shadows and airbrushing often went unnoticed.
This puts a remarkable amount of pressure on journalists to adhere to the highest possible ethical standards. When it is easy to do something, easy to get away with it and nobody seems to know the difference, ethics can take a backseat to expediency. That will continue to erode public confidence in the media at a time in which it most needs quality journalism and truth-telling operations.
Check out these two Tweets from big-name media outlets:
The gist of these is the same, but consider the CBS tweet’s use of “for” and how much trouble could occur as a result of that word. This implies the guy is guilty and has engaged in fraud, something that has yet to be proven in a court of law.
“For” fits a pattern of X results in Y. You get paid for working at your job. The pay results from the work. You get kicked out of class for cheating on a test. The suspension comes as a result of the cheating. One presupposes the other. What happens if this guy isn’t found guilty?
The WaPo tweet is more accurate in what happened. He has been arrested and he has been charged with a crime. Guilt comes later, if at all. (Truth be told, I’m not a huge fan of the use of “disastrous” in the tweet, as that sits between opinion and hyperbole, but it’s probably going to be OK once a reader digs into the story and sees what happened with Fyre.)
It’s unlikely that a tiny turn of phrase in this situation will devastate CBS. That said, a multi-million-dollar labor dispute is hinging on a single comma, so it never hurts to be careful.