The Problem with Needing to Be the First to Report the News

“Don’t believe everything you read on the internet” — the new and now longstanding credo du époque. 

What happened to actually reporting the news?  Pressure from conglomerates happened. Ratings, sensationalism, virality happened. The internet and social media happened, and I’d argue that we’re all to blame in some way, simply by demand and consumption. 

With the internet being the world’s main and largest source of information, and social media making it available and accessible by the literal second, it is a bit tough to escape the matrix — but tough doesn’t have to be impossible. 

On Monday, October 2nd, reports flooded in early in the day that legendary singer, songwriter, and musician Tom Petty was taken to the hospital in a state of unconsciousness following cardiac arrest. His condition was updated to having been taken off of life support, to dying. This was reported by hundreds of verified online publications, until it was acknowledged that confirmation had, in fact, not been obtained. 

Following a statement from the LAPD denying their prior confirmation, reports were quickly retracted to Petty clinging to life until his spokesperson released a statement hours later that he had passed away at 8:40 pm PST.

This need to be the first to report breaking news is now regularly causing once-reputable news outlets to shoot themselves in the foot while it’s still their mouth, while other websites — essentially RSS or reblog feeds — pick up the story and further spread the contamination. 

Was this the LAPD’s fault, or was it the fault of the new school of journalism? Was it our fault as the public for how easily we’ve adapted to wildfire? 

I would answer: all of the above.

As a result, Petty’s final hours were tinged by the unfair and unwarranted stress of infringed upon privacy, personally experienced by his family, friends, and bandmates. Fans around the world were either propped up by false hope, or thrust into a position of waiting for him to die. There was no good publicity to be garnered from it — just a media circus. Just vultures circling around, waiting to strike. 

It begs reminding that it is the job of journalism to report and document the news through an unbiased lens, with integrity to the profession. It a position worthy of dignity and respect, one with huge responsibility. It is far more than cents-per-word or exposure-only employment. And, it is not at all about the journalist. Journalism is our history in motion.

In forgetting this, devastating events surrounding the first two days of October 2017 have fallen under the pay-per-click umbrella, where “everyone is a journalist”, at an ultimate cost to the subject. 

We should all be ashamed.

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