Reporting the News: If You Ain’t First, You’re Last

Is it more important to be first or to be right when reporting the news? When reporting the news today, to steal a quote from fictional race car driver Ricky Bobby, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” Take for example the sad news of Michael Jackson’s death yesterday. AOL-owned TMZ was the first to report that Jackson had died. And sadly, they did get it right.

You have to wonder whether TMZ really talked to a source, or rather just gambled and got it right. Does it matter? Had TMZ been wrong, we would have forgotten in a couple of hours. Instead, they were mentioned as the source by every news organization (not to mention in thousands of tweets). I’m sure there are thousands of people who had never heard of TMZ before yesterday.

What concerns me most about all of this is how quickly rumors have become the news. No longer do we wait for a factual report. In the hour following the TMZ report, most news organizations reported what TMZ had said, but wouldn’t confirm themselves (basically perpetuating the rumors until they could confirm their report or tear TMZ a new one for getting it wrong). Yesterday’s events were the perfect example of process journalism in the Twitter era, as each news outlet gradually updated their stories with the most recent facts (really more first hand accounts from the scene).

While there is little harm that can come from misreporting celebrity news, what if it were a report about a public safety issue? Could this rapid rumor spreading cause a riot? Probably not, since the wisdom of crowds would prevail among those connected to the Web, but it’s interesting to consider as our speed of communication accelerates.

While we lost a music legend and American icon yesterday, TMZ won the news race. I still have more respect for news organizations like the LATimes or CNN that seemed to wait for the facts before posting the story. Then again, maybe they were just slower on the draw. Either way, it’s still hard for me to trust a gossip blog as a legitimate news source. The sad but unfortunate reality to all of this is the first to report (and get it right) is the most credible. As dumb as it sounds, if you ain’t first, you’re last.

Update: As I’m typing this, TMZ is breaking another story. They’re claiming that police are looking for Jackson’s doctor, who may have given Jackson an injection shortly before his death (family members earlier told TMZ they had been concerned about the amount of Morphine Jackson was taking). If you glance at some of the tweets coming out right now about TMZ’s report, it’s alarming how many misquote and get the facts of the story wrong.

Related Stories: here are some other good accounts about yesterday’s reporting of Michael Jackson’s death:

About Jeremy Porter 214 Articles
Jeremy Porter has been passionate about the intersection of public relations and journalism since studying both Public Relations and Journalism at Utica College of Syracuse University in the late 90s. Porter launched Journalistics in 2009 to share his ideas and insights around both professions and how trends and developments in modern day marketing, communications, and technology impact those working in these fields. Porter also values the traditions and history of both professions and regularly shares his perspective in these areas - and related topics geared toward the next generation of journalism and public relations professionals.

8 Comments

  1. I know I didn’t buy into the theory that he passed away until a legitimate news source reported it. The sad thing is that TMZ is becoming known as a source for anything celebrity. So it makes you wonder what is going to happen. Are bloggers going to be allowed the same rights as reporters and how do we differentiate?

  2. I noticed that CNN and MSNBC and others were declaring him dead in news alerts by simply stating that “other sources” were reporting he died. The entire collection of these news alerts can be seen at http://www.BreakingNewsOrNot.com . Note how some say AP is reporting his death, and none of the major sources give credit to TMZ.

  3. I blogged about this a month or so ago – Twitter is so conducive to spreading lies and rumors it’s scary – You can read the post in it’s entirety here: http://aerocles.wordpress.com/2009/05/20/twitter-your-no-1-source-for-lies-rumors-misinformation/

    Several months ago, February 10th to be exact, I received an @ Reply from @Retweetradar claiming that I was one of the most the most retweeted people on twitter.

    Most Retweeted
    At this point, I only had a few hundred followers, needless to say I was skeptical, hopeful, and shocked. As it turns out, for a brief period of time, I WAS the most retweeted person. Why? Because I retweeted an ‘Amber Alert.’ It spread like a California wildfire; it saturated my twitstream all day. The problem: it was a hoax. Not perpetrated by me, but perpetuated by my lack of fact-checking. Even though the truth was brought to my attention shortly after my well-intended, but misinformed tweeting, the retweets kept coming. I posted again and again that I was wrong, that I had been fed faulty information, I and apologized for disseminating it before vetting it’s validity – something difficult to admit for any PR profession. But it didn’t matter. It was too late, the tweet was out there – there was no taking it back. Ironically, I gained about 200 new followers that day…

    When I was a kid, my parents had to continually remind me “Just because it’s on TV doesn’t mean it’s true.” Though, these words fell on deaf ears as I distinctly remember aspiring to be a Power Ranger. Anyway….

    In college, I applied this lesson to the internet -Wikipedia in particular. And by ‘applied,’ I mean the learned hard way – called out by professors for my laziness, leading, inevitably, to inaccurate reporting on my part. It didn’t take long for me to see the error of my ways and remedy the situation. As a matter of fact, as a consequence of this learning experience, I decided to make this issue the focus my final project in my “Creative Nonfiction – Magazine Journalism” class. I discussed the problem of TMI & how the internet has directed us to redefine how we value information, shifting priority from accuracy to accessibility, encyclopedia to Wikipedia, library research to Google search, respected medical journals to the first entry we come across on WebMD. Perhaps one day I’ll share the paper with you, though it’s no doubt become antiquated in the year since my writing of “One Omni Shy of A God.”

    This problem has evolved once more as we twitter addicts have come to rely on the platform as our primary source of news, effectively equalizing CNN’s posts with those of anyone else, as they flow through our stream of incoming tweets.

    Recent event’s made this clearer than ever. First it was that Proposition 8 was overturned. Rumors abounded (Abund?) about the California bill on gay marriage – as people flocked to an L.A. Times article from a year ago. Next was Patrick Swayze’s alleged death. As Mashable reported:

    “Patrick Swayze, the actor who has been fighting pancreatic cancer since January 2008, is very much alive, despite rumors earlier today that he’d passed away.

    Traditional media started the inaccurate rumor, with Florida-based radio station KissFM planting the seed this morning. However, it was Twitter that spread the news rapidly, even leading to Patrick’s Wikipedia page being wrongly updated.

    The false Tweets forced Swayze’s rep to release a statement:

    “This is to confirm that Patrick Swayze did not pass away this morning contrary to severely reckless reports stemming from a radio station in Jacksonville, Florida. Swayze is alive, well and is enjoying his life and he continues to respond to treatment.

    And then there was the Quiznos Marketing Fail. Soon after discovering a video in which it appeared that Quiznos was attempting to capitalize on the horrors of ‘Two Girl One Cup’ (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, trust me, your better off…seriously), with a “2 Girls One Sub” video. Bloggers, consumers and media personalities, myself included, expressed their disgust and were quick to call out the brand for use of such tactics. But again, the speed at which news travels on twitter lends itself to misinformation and inaccuracy. In a matter of hours, Adage’s Emily York & Ken Wheaton uncovered the truth – Quiznos had no part in creating the video, it was made by playboy…And all of us breathed a sigh of relief, thinking “Wow, that makes a lot more sense.”

    The open forum. The fact that 140 characters happens to be the perfect amount for a headline and link. The ability to retweet at the click of a button. The perception that every blog is a legitimate news source (and I’m not making any generalizations here). These features are what allow us to converse and inform and enlighten and at the same time accidently spread the unproven and juicy gossip that we’re so inclined to believe.

    So, all I’m asking is that we be careful. Twitter is amazing for so many reasons. But it’s greatest offerings – access to breaking news, crowd-sourcing, etc…are also a potential source of erroneous reporting, falsehoods, and rumors, whether intentional or not. So don’t let the twitter-haters win by providing them more fodder with which to trash our platform.

    Please…Think Before You Tweet.

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