Michael Jackson dies and teaches us that the new media is exactly the same as the old media.
When celebrity news site TMZ reported that Michael Jackson had died last week, we didn't quite believe it. The BBC, the LA Times and others reported the fact that TMZ had reported it but wouldn't confirm it. A number of serious news sites reported the story with inverted commas around the word "dies".
Who can blame them. The TMZ story, of course, turned out to be true. But so many others have not. Jeff Goldblum, for example, was reported dead the same night. This was a fake story. If you want to recreate the fake go to fakeawish and type Jeff Goldblum into the boxes. That's exactly how the story got started. Harrison Ford also didn't die that night, despite rumours.
It is heartening to see the news working exactly as it should. The Jeff Goldblum story got little traction because it could not be confirmed. The Michael Jackson story was huge. The truth outweighs the fake. (Although one suspects that for many outlets, confirmation involved waiting for the LA Times [whom we trust] to publish it and then going for it ourselves, which is not quite the same as getting a statement from the presiding doctor).
1. We don't run a story until we can confirm for ourselves that it is true -- the way it should be, the way it has always been?
The Guardian later described TMZ's story as "the scoop of the decade". Although it is a big story, and although TMZ undoubtedly got there first, it is difficult to accept it as the scoop of the decade. After all, what would have happened if TMZ had not existed? We would have read about Jackson's death about 40 minutes later than we did. Not quite Nellie Bly exposing New York asylums or William Howard Russell reporting from the Crimean War. They changed things with their scoops. TMZ really didn't (sorry guys, but you didn't).
It is the same as it ever was. In our rush to break a story, we forget that the news is elsewhere. The only reason that someone dying is news (I hate to tell you, but many people die every day and don't make it on to TMZ or anywhere else), is because of its impact on others. The mass emotional response to Jackson's death is where the real story is.
This is why the BBC, despite much criticism, was right to send Emily Maitlis to LA to film young people moon walking. The fans and their response are real story. I must be right -- Boris Johnson agrees.
2. Journalism is more than writing a story. It is about how that story affects people.
Yesterday, the Sun had a scoop of its own when it reported that Jackson had been bald and emaciated at the time of his death. TMZ reported the LA Coroner's statement that the story was false:
The report that is being published did not come from this office. I don't know where the information came from, or who that information came from. It is not accurate. Some of it is totally false.
he said. This is the same TMZ which picked up and ran with the Sun story about two hours previously. So maybe other news sources were right to pause over the celeb site's original story.
One Twitterer on a commuter train out of London on the night Jackson died reported that people around him could not resist gossiping about the story. But the concensus was that they wouldn't believe it for sure until the saw it on the BBC.
3. You only become a trusted source if you get your stories right most of the time. Being first doesn't help your credibility.