In­stant news brings new risks

Cape Breton Post - - COMMENT -

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.

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