On Monday, Oct. 2, 2017, the world lost a true titan of rock ‘n’ roll. Tom Petty was America’s great common denominator. Everyone, it seemed, liked Petty.
The moment word broke that he had been discovered unresponsive at his Malibu home, and transported to UCLA Medical Center, newsrooms across the country went into hyper-drive. Social media posts rapidly multiplied. Obits were commenced. Sources were dialed. Comments from Petty’s fellow rock luminaries were sought. However, in an effort to be first with the seemingly imminent news of Petty’s death, a few prominent media outlets prematurely reported that he already died, setting off a wave of confusion, and ultimately condemnation from the rocker’s family.
In today’s fast-paced media environment, where the borderline-clairvoyant TMZ breaks international news and Twitter is the preferred newsfeed of the masses, it is imperative that media outlets be more careful than ever. While even the losers get lucky sometimes, better to gather verifiable information before rolling the dice on a major scoop.
CBS reported Petty’s death on Twitter nearly nine hours before his actual passing, attributing the information to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). The tweet (later deleted) set off a flurry of similar reports from such media heavyweights as Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone and HuffPost. This prompted the LAPD to take to Twitter to clarify that it had no investigative role in the matter and could not confirm or deny Petty’s death.
For many reporters (to steal a line from Petty), the waiting is the hardest part – hence the rush to anticipate news before it happens. Breaking news on social media sometimes feels like a race against time. But media outlets will save themselves a significant degree of embarrassment and criticism if they verify their facts first.
For most of us, Petty’s death is a real heartbreaker. But the erroneous reports of his passing, followed by conflicting statements that he was clinging to life, incited tremendous confusion, and perpetuated a sense of free fall for the legend’s adoring fans. All because someone needed to be first with the news on Twitter. This sort of communications breakdown should serve as a lesson for reporters, publicists and media commentators alike.
“You better watch what you say
You better watch what you do to me.
Don’t get carried away.”
—Tom Petty, “You Got Lucky”