Instant news brings new risks
Legendary Canadian troubadour Gordon Lightfoot was driving Thursday when he was startled to hear on his car radio that he had died. Lightfoot thus became the latest in a string of celebrities to be pranked with news of his demise.
The 16-time Juno winner and member of the Order of Canada remains an active concert performer at age 71 and, as he puts it, is “too busy to be dead.”
News reports gave a confusing account of how the story originated and found its way into the mainstream news, however briefly. Reports said it originated on Twitter, a social messaging service on the Internet, but musician Ronnie Hawkins said someone claiming to be Lightfoot’s grandson had left a phone message with news of the death at Hawkins’s management office in Minneapolis. How the tweet and phone call were related was not explained, but there may be evidence here of a very deliberate and carefully executed hoax.
Hawkins, described as a friend of Lightfoot, told the sad news to wife Wanda who emailed friends in the music business, thus helping to propagate the false information with a gloss of authenticity.
The triumph for the prankster must have come when the story was picked up by Canwest News Service and posted on several newspaper websites in the chain, including the Vancouver Sun, Ottawa Citizen and Calgary Herald. From that point the story survived only about 20 minutes before being decisively debunked by the deceased himself.
So Canwest is the goat but it would be wise not to jeer too loudly. This is an instructive illustration of one type of risk posed in the emerging world of instant, round-theclock news. The pace is even more frenetic than we’ve become accustomed to with all-news TV and radio because now just about all news organizations – even the Cape Breton Post – are adopting the instantaneous dissemination technologies emerging on the Internet.
Traditional media, like us, take this on with the idea that we’ll be able to bring established news-gathering techniques and standards to a chaotic medium but it’s not that simple. Among other things, instant news creates pressure to morph traditional standards of fact-checking into what live TV news anchors, dealing with fast-breaking crisis reporting, like to call best available information.
It was on the basis of best available information that U.S. TV networks reported the death of White House press secretary James Brady on March 20, 1981. Though severely wounded that day in the attempted assassination of then president Ronald Reagan, Brady in fact survived.
Often it’s not possible to confirm a celebrity death quickly through official sources. In the Lightfoot case, if Rompin’ Ronnie says Gordie’s dead, isn’t that enough?
The Lightfoot story is a cautionary tale but this is not the last time a reputable news organization will be caught out in the scramble to be minutes faster than its rivals. Fortunately, a false story of a death usually isn’t fatal.