Lightfoot hoax leaves many questions

In case you missed it, the media and media-criticizing world was all a-Twitter today (<– OMG BEST PUN EVER!) over false reports that singer Gordon Lightfoot had died.

Some false media reports quoted Canwest, specifically political reporter David Akin, who tweeted about it, citing “sources close to the singer,” others to Lightfoot friend Ronnie Hawkins, who confirmed the news to the media. Some weren’t sure what their source was.

The Vancouver Sun was the first or among the first to post the story, which was published by Canwest News Service, and posted to Canada.com and the National Post:

National Post story that Gordon Lightfoot has died

From there it spread, apparently to Quebecor’s Canoe, to blogs (including Maclean’s), Twitter and lesser news sources, some of whom said the news was unconfirmed, though most just assumed that all the reports from respectable media must have meant it was true (I’m looking at you, SooToday.com).

Is-he-alive-or-isn't-he story at SooToday.com (now says he's "no longer dead")

As we eventually learned, what happened was that someone pretending to be Lightfoot’s grandson called Hawkins’s management company and said that Lightfoot had died. That information got to Hawkins, Hawkins told his wife, who spread the word, and it quickly got to the media after it was posted on Twitter. Canwest confirmed it with Hawkins but apparently nobody else, and sent out an alert, followed by a short story that others copied.

It wasn’t long before the stories were pulled. Most simply disappeared with no explanation. Some Twitter feeds made mention of “conflicting reports“. Then, soon, new stories started appearing about how the rumours were false: Vancouver Sun (and elsewhere at Canwest), National PostQMI, Globe and MailToronto Star, CBC, Canadian Press and elsewhere. Lightfoot himself called 680 News after he was listening to the radio and heard about his own death. The Toronto Sun even made a video.

As much as I’d love to jump on the “MSM”-hating bandwagon for their false report of Lightfoot’s death, I can kind of understand how it happened, considering the circumstances. The news came from a family friend, and that’s usually enough to confirm someone’s death. The likelihood that they would intentionally mislead the media (on the record) is low. Much as journalism schools and professional journalists tell people to always get more than one source, there are so many stories published today that have exactly that, whether it’s a press release, a statement by a government official, or a trusted source. It’s bad journalism, but it’s still done.

Nevertheless, this is a reminder that when you get lazy like that, you’ll eventually get burned. It’s still best to check with multiple sources, especially for something as important as reporting someone’s death. It’s also just as important to find out how your sources got their information (if you have two sources who heard it from the same person, that’s still one source). And just because someone else reported it doesn’t make it true.

Anyway, shit happens, people get burned (intentionally or not), false news goes out and is quickly corrected. Lightfoot had a good laugh, Hawkins feels really bad, and the media learn a lesson they’ll quickly forget when the next big rumour spreads online.

Here’s what bothers me

  1. Canwest’s original alert (as quoted by David Akin) quoted “sources close to the family” – was it more than one? Who was the other source? Why weren’t they named? Or was that just a euphemism? “Sources say” sounds better than “a source says”, even though the latter is true and the former is not. The best explanation is that Canwest considers Ronnie Hawkins as one source, and someone Hawkins told as another. There’s an obvious problem with that.
  2. The original stories reporting Lightfoot’s death have, for the most part, simply been pulled, not replaced with the story saying he isn’t dead. Though the story of the hoax is getting more traction than the hoax itself, people getting sent links to the original stories with “Gordon Lightfoot RIP” get error messages and blank pages instead of a correction or apology.
  3. There are still conflicting reports about how the rumour got started. Canwest specifically talks about “Twitter rumours” and an “Internet hoax” – even though other stories talk about a phone message as being the original source of the hoax. And if these were just “Twitter rumours”, why did they run with the story? (UPDATE: The Vancouver Sun explains how an unnamed Canwest reporter heard about the death online and called Hawkins to confirm it. A day later, most media are presenting this as Twitter rumours that “eventually” made it into the mainstream media, when most Twitter posts about it were based on the Canwest story.)
  4. Even though many media fell for the hoax, only the CBC story makes any sort of apology (and that was just the reporter, for retweeting a link to a story elsewhere – CBC News itself waited for confirmation). Most stories (particularly Canwest ones) don’t even mention that they themselves originally published the false information, and none offer an apology or explanation for having done so.

Considering the story now is about how the media got it wrong, it would probably be a good idea if the media didn’t get that story wrong too.

UPDATE: Mathew Ingram and Peter Kafka also point out that Twitter wasn’t the source of this rumour.

UPDATE (Feb. 19): More details on how this got started from Ian Capstick and Three Seven, which says Canwest got the original tip via Twitter. Regret the Error also has an item on this whole debacle.

The L.A. Times Ministry of Gossip blog also has a post rounding up the details (and quotes me specifically).

UPDATE (Feb. 25): Rebecca Fleming, the first person to tweet about Lightfoot’s death, absolves herself of responsibility in the Globe and Mail.

8 thoughts on “Lightfoot hoax leaves many questions

  1. Rich

    So ole Gordo gets to read his own obituary while he’s still among the quick… That’s a pretty shabby way to treat such a treasured national icon.

    Here’s hoping he gets a good chuckle out of this, or subject matter for one more wry tune, or time enough at least to disinherit the douche who started all this. What a fiasco.

    Reply
  2. Jack B.

    It doesn’t matter what the original sources were. For any story that might generate a few clicks on the publisher’s website, it’s simply “copy, paste, publish” these days. And with a fast medium like Twitter it is just getting worse. Because of incidents like this, I’ve simply stopped giving the “respectable media” any more respect than the average blogger. Both have the same likelihood to publish false information these days so there is simply no more difference to make out.

    And as far as pulling stories without any kind of notice goes, that’s just another hint at the fact that many of those media outlets don’t even have the courage to stand up to the mistakes they set out. In fact, I’d give some bloggers much more respect than any of those media machines because they will not simply try to make their mistakes disappear as though they had never happened.

    Reply
  3. Capri

    As a Gordon Lightfoot fan myself, I find this and other death hoaxes particularly sickening. Do these pranksters realize – oh but then, they are hoaxters, they don’t give a crap how tasteless it is to wish death on people just to get a few cheap thrills at the expense of the public and the frantic story-hungry media.

    Reply
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