Why the media won’t learn from false death reports

It’s been two weeks since the media (both the “mainstream” and “new”/”social”) reported that former NHL coach Pat Burns had died, only to be corrected later that day by Pat Burns himself.

Getting a story wrong in such an obviously embarrassing way is bad enough, but killing someone who isn’t dead (but whose health is failing) makes it even worse. This wasn’t about getting an address wrong or misquoting someone. Stories like these can cause undue anguish upon someone’s loved ones.

Two weeks later, we still don’t have a perfectly clear picture of what happened, even though just about every person with a blog and an axe to grind has proclaimed their superiority on a high horse and cast blame upon those they deem less worthy of the term “journalist.”

Timeline of tweets mentioning Pat Burns on Sept. 17

What really happened

Here’s what we do know: On Sept. 16, news reports surfaced that Burns’s health was declining. He’s fighting a losing battle with cancer, so this wasn’t entirely unexpected.

On the morning of Sept. 17, former Maple Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher met reporters – including the Toronto Star’s Damien Cox – and told them that Pat Burns had died. Cox tweeted the information, and it began to spread.

The sources of reports by other media are less clear: Few of them have published long mea culpas and erroneous tweets and stories have been largely deleted. This tweet from News 1130 radio in Vancouver is typical, happening just as news was breaking around 11am. CTV Ottawa also tweeted the news (and later deleted it and apologized). Ray Ferraro gave it on air on The Team 1040 in Vancouver. The Fan 590 did the same.

With the number of reports expanding exponentially (many of them poorly sourced), news organizations became more confident the news was real and started re-reporting it. Some used the vague “sources report”, others credited specific news organizations, and some didn’t bother with either. On Twitter, where the 140-character limit discourages proper sourcing and the breaking-news-retweet culture means rumours can spread fast, any care to qualify the news with attribution is quickly lost in a sea of tweets like “RIP Pat Burns”.

At some point, TSN prepared an obituary that was published on its website. TSN denied to Torontoist that they had ever reported Burns dying, but the National Post has a screenshot of the TSN story online saying exactly that.

TSN being a respected news organization, its story sparked other media to make the decision to publish the information, including The Gazette. Sun Media even published a pre-written obituary column. The Toronto Star and other news organizations also reported that Burns had died.

(It’s been theorized that TSN may have inadvertently published a draft obituary that was findable by Google even though it hadn’t been posted to the website’s homepage. That’s one plausible explanation, and a good warning about what’s considered “published” in some content management systems.)

Before too long, reports of Burns’s not-death had begun to circulate. Burns’s son was telling journalists that his father was alive. News organizations started panicking and pulling their stories. Eventually Burns himself called TSN’s Bob McKenzie to say he was still with us. The not-death confirmed, those obituaries were quickly being replaced by stories explaining that Burns was not dead despite the “rumours” that those same news organizations had described as “reports” only an hour earlier.

By the next day, columns started appearing in newspapers, many of them blaming Twitter for the bad Burns rumours or bragging that they were more cautious. (Though not to brag about it, CTV Montreal’s Jed Kahane made a point of emailing me to say that his station never reported the erroneous news, even though its sister station in Ottawa did, causing many to say “CTV” got it wrong and paint the entire network with one irresponsible brush. Canadian Press also reported that they held off on the story)

CBC put up a “timeline” of tweets, but one that is entirely blank for the first 50 minutes of this story’s genesis. Influence Communication also puts up a timeline (one that suggests TSN did in fact tweet the information, which TSN has denied), though it’s similarly less than complete.

Sound familiar?

If this all sounds a lot like what happened to Gordon Lightfoot in February, you aren’t imagining it. There are many aspects of the two obiticides that are similar:

  • Both stories originated from a friend of the not-deceased, who was erroneously informed of the death and told the media (in Lightfoot’s case, it was a prank, while Fletcher says he was “misinformed by a friend”, without making it clear who that friend was or how the misinformation originated). In neither case did any of this original communication happen via Twitter, so far as we know
  • In both cases, the information was published on Twitter and on news websites by journalists – with no confirmation from an independent party
  • In both cases, other news media re-reported the news, many with inadequate sourcing and none making a proper attempt at independent confirmation
  • In both cases, the multiplication of reports from a single source appears to have been confused as multiple independent sources, giving more credibility to what is essentially a single-source second-hand rumour
  • In both cases, it was the subject himself who had to step forward and proclaim his aliveness
  • In both cases, editors quickly suppressed or deleted stories from news websites when learning of rumours that the story was wrong – leaving only an error message which could have given readers the impression that either the website had a technical problem or that the organization was trying to hide the fact that they screwed up
  • In both cases, mainstream media blamed Twitter and social media, while so-called new media blamed the mainstream
  • In both cases, there were lots of explanations, but few apologies; lots of analyses of what went wrong, but few reasonable suggestions on how to prevent it from happening again

In reality, such errors long predate Twitter, and have followed similar paths for many years. Read this excerpt from Craig Silverman’s Regret the Error, published in 2007 (mere months after Twitter launched and long before it achieved the kind of audience it has now), and you see a lot that applies to this situation. Twitter hasn’t created a problem here, but it has made it much worse.

The get-it-second philosophy

Here’s the truth: Despite all the apologies, all the hand-wringing, all the judgmental columns, the media won’t learn much from Pat Burns, just like they learned little from Gordon Lightfoot. Sure, they will be a bit more skeptical the next time they hear a celebrity dies, but not enough. We saw that just this week as everyone jumped over themselves to report the death of comedian Greg Giraldo and movie star Tony Curtis. Fortunately they were right on both counts, but many of those early stories said things like “TMZ reports” or “Entertainment Weekly reports”.

So why the rush anyway? It’s not like they’ll get any more dead if you wait a few minutes, right? And if you don’t have the scoop, why would you want to draw attention to that embarrassing fact?

The answer is Google.

Ever since mainstream news organizations first learned how to analyze traffic to their websites, they’ve been desperate to harness the awesome power of Google. When news breaks about someone, searches for that person’s name skyrocket, and online editors know the faster they get something – anything – online with that person’s name, the faster they can scoop up some of those Google searches and see a spike in traffic. This is why online media seem so obsessed with the most minor stories about Katy Perry, Lady Gaga or other celebrities: They’re already searched like crazy, and the combination of celebrity and breaking news is a gold mine that the media (whether it’s the Vancouver Sun or the Huffington Post) are desperate to pillage.

Not wanting to be the only news organization not reporting some hot gossip, many will lower their standards or eliminate them entirely in the interests of speed.

Google didn’t create this problem, but it did make it much worse. It doesn’t adequately punish news websites that steal scoops from others. As a result, it rewards this behaviour. It encourages narrow-minded thinking and pushes people toward the lowest common denominator. It prioritizes speed over accuracy or depth. It drives traffic to stories that are identical to those found elsewhere (Google News judges importance by how often a story is repeated) rather than original reporting that is truly worthy of attention.

Before this era, journalists were a bit more careful. For one thing, they were highly skeptical of big scoops from the competition, and many would verify the information with the thought of how great it would be if that scoop proved to be wrong. Now, the news happens too fast for that. It’s better to report the news to draw the Google traffic, and then update the story with confirmation or denials later.

Report then verify

Some self-proclaimed social media experts say this is actually how it should be done. For them, rumours should be reported as such by news organizations on Twitter, because it’s better than the alternative of saying nothing and letting people think you’re just unaware of the story.

I don’t know about that. There are lots of rumours out there, and reporting on all of them lowers the level of journalism significantly and can torpedo a news organization’s reputation. Do we want all news to be on the same level as celebrity gossip magazines, who breathlessly report scoops that might have as little as a 7% chance of being true?

Personally, I think there’s little value in repeating someone else’s scoop. (It’s better to just link to it – and if everyone did that there would be far more rewards in general for good reporting.) Better to focus on covering an issue with depth and contributing something original to the conversation.

But then I’m not the one who has to worry constantly about making sure my website’s page view statistics look good week-over-week.

The fallacy of the reliable source

Perhaps the most important lesson to arise out of the Burns and Lightfoot screwups is that just because a source is well-placed and honest doesn’t mean they’re right. Cliff Fletcher and Ronnie Hawkins aren’t journalists, but they were treated as if they were. Being friends of the not-deceased, their words were considered golden, requiring no verification.

It’s important to track the source of information, and to ask anyone who doesn’t know something first-hand where their information came from – then go to that source and repeat the process.

But I’m not naive enough to think this is actually going to happen.

Despite what they teach you in journalism school about getting three sources for every story, many stories are single-sourced. That brief in the paper about the fatal car accident? Straight out of the mouth of the Montreal police or SQ media relations person. That business earnings brief? Rewritten corporate press release. The sports league standings? From the league itself.

It’s understandable. In many cases it’s just impractical to verify information, particularly when the source is almost always right and there’s no reason why it would intentionally deceive.

The rarity of active deception is actively exploited by journalists. Few of us check driver’s licenses when asking for a name, or independently verify information in an official computerized listing. We’ll double-check to see if a celebrity Twitter account is really that celebrity, but if it’s got one of those “verified” badges on it we’ll trust that Twitter has already done the work for us.

This isn’t just a problem for the “lamestream” media. New media and social media have the same implicit trust in their sources, and the vast majority of Twitter users (myself included) will pass on information that came from a single reliable source.

Applying a rigid three-source rule to all information reported in the news media is simply impractical. (Heck, many of the so-called facts in this blog post have only one source, and some have none.) What is practical, however, is applying a rigid attribution policy, where breaking news is properly sourced and information can be traced to its origin. Instead of saying “according to multiple reports”, make it clear: “TSN and CTV are reporting”.

After all, a story that says “A story on TSN’s website reports Pat Burns has died” is factually correct.

Combined with a robust skepticism of any information that doesn’t come from an official source, and a bit of caution about reporting news as important as someone’s death, this can hopefully significantly reduce the appearance of such errors in the future.

And maybe – just maybe – news organizations can become more trustworthy, even when they get it wrong.

8 thoughts on “Why the media won’t learn from false death reports

  1. Derek Cassoff

    Great post, Steve. To borrow from a famous analogy about guns: Twitter doesn’t publish false news, people publish false news.

  2. AlexH

    The internet is a device that distributes information at the speed to light, but also one that distributes disinformation just as quickly. Internet “news” (aka, twitter, blogs, facebook, and the like) isn’t based on short term accuracy, but speed. So disinformation travels quickly with few checks, as people spread the word and try to find out details. Over time, the internet does tend to correct itself, and the truth becomes more clear.

    In the case of Pat Burns, anyone who knows the story of his illness is sort of expecting this story to happen, and thus are a little less likely to ask the questions. It is sad, but our expectations are tilted towards that future (hopefully far in the future) sad event.

    In the “old times”, media would have a little while to consider the story before moving forward. There was time to make that one extra phone call, to check with the family, agent, or whoever to try to find out the truth before the story ran. Newspapers often had the rest of the day, TV had at least until the 6PM news, and radio had at least until the top of the hour. The internet is NOW, and now means “fresh, unchecked, unfiltered”… and often wrong.

    It’s why wikipedia allows for editing, because much of what is there was wrong, or still is.

  3. wkh

    I love your comment that it was fortunate that the news about Giraldo and Curtis being dead was correct. ;-)

    They will never say “TSN and CTV are reporting,….” because in today’s “branding” climate you don’t acknowledge other outlets exist. Remember you told us that yourself in your report on the dude who got busted on Canoe for plagiarism.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      in today’s “branding” climate you don’t acknowledge other outlets exist.

      I would qualify that by saying that in today’s media climate you try to avoid acknowledging the existence of other media. Or you try to obfuscate it when you have to. But if a media report is the only source you have for a story, more often than not it will be attributed, not because the media like to honour each other’s scoops, but because they like to cover their own asses in case it turns out to be wrong.

    2. Karine

      I agree. Can you imagine the Journal giving credit to La Presse or Rad-Can for a story? Even Rad-Can sometimes sources “local [enter media type]” instead of naming them. That said, I remember the Gordon Lightfoot announcement/retraction but only heard about the Pat Burns story days later. I don’t even know when it actually happened.

  4. Fassero

    Good article. It boils down to so many “sources” out there (news agencies, media outlets, blogs) and everybody is fighting over each other to have the “scoop”. With celebrity, everybody and their brother wants to beat TMZ and it leads to downright sloppiness. Of course, it begs the question of why there is such urgency to begin with but this is the era when celebrity is king. Sad thing.

    In the case of Pat Burns, you can’t help but have to part blame his Toronto fame. He’s so synonymous with the only respectable Leafs teams of the last 20 years. Yes, he coached in Montreal too but look at the your timeline. When did anybody Quebec start to jump on the story? And Quebec is, arguably, a tabloid mecca – especially on the French side.

    Or maybe the Quebec press was too busy dying to come up with their own version of the BP oil disaster. I’m starting to wonder if some guy tosses a tenth of a jug of 10W30 into the St. Lawrence will become the lead story in minutes….

    1. Fagstein Post author

      In the case of Pat Burns, you can’t help but have to part blame his Toronto fame. He’s so synonymous with the only respectable Leafs teams of the last 20 years. Yes, he coached in Montreal too but look at the your timeline. When did anybody Quebec start to jump on the story? And Quebec is, arguably, a tabloid mecca – especially on the French side.

      To be clear, the story originated out of Toronto because the first report of Burns’s death was made in Toronto by a Maple Leafs staffer to a Toronto Star reporter. It could have just as easily been any other city. And it was TV and radio stations from Ottawa and Vancouver that helped propagate the initial Twitter firestorm.

      Quebec francophone media have the same problem, particularly when it comes to news about the big celebrities here: the Canadiens.

  5. Karine

    Wasn’t there a debate when Lhasa de Sela passed away? No wait it was Nelly Arcan, about the way their deaths were reported or not and the brouhaha over her ex’ blog post before her death was confirmed. Too many false claims of death have popped lately, I can’t believe people haven’t developed scepticism about any announcement.


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