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While driving back from a trip to the dentist on Thursday, Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot was somewhat surprised to learn that he was deceased — at least, according to the radio station he was listening to. Thousands of other people discovered his death via Twitter, which exploded with reports of his demise and was soon filled with tributes to him, touching memories of where people were when they heard his classic songs, and so on. And thus, Lightfoot joined a select (but growing) group of celebrities who have been reported dead via Twitter — a list that includes Jeff Goldblum, Maya Angelou, Patrick Swayze (who did pass away soon afterwards), Zach Braff, Johnny Depp and Kanye West.
Once it became known that Lightfoot had not in fact gone to his eternal reward, plenty of people spent the next several hours doing another thing that people love to do on Twitter: blame Twitter for spreading a fake news report. But as Peter Kafka correctly points out, Twitter didn’t kill Gordon Lightfoot — traditional media did. It appeared to start with a prank phone call (remember the telephone?) to the management company representing Lightfoot’s close friend and fellow musical legend Ronnie Hawkins, from someone pretending to be Lightfoot’s grandson.
Hawkins then started calling people to let them know, who in turn alerted Canwest News Service, which called Hawkins to confirm the news and then published a brief news item that got picked up by a number of the chain’s newspapers. That report was then spread by reporters on Twitter, including Canwest political reporter David Akin, who later wrote a blog post about the role he played in the story.
As Akin notes in his analysis of what happened, traditional news wires regularly report things that turn out to be wrong, including the deaths of famous people. Back in the PT days (pre-Twitter), only traditional journalists saw those reports, and while they occasionally made their way into print or onto a TV news show, for the most part newswires like the Associated Press and Reuters corrected them before they escaped into the real world (if you’re interested, Wikipedia has a pretty exhaustive list of everyone whose death has been prematurely reported, whether on Twitter or anywhere else). With Twitter, however — and an increasing number of traditional journalists using the social network — that kind of “news” leaks out faster than ever before, and it can get re-transmitted and re-broadcast far more broadly.
Is that a bad thing? Maybe. But it is a reality. Call it the new ecosystem of news if you want to be fancy about it. And it’s worth noting that Twitter did just as good a job of being skeptical about the early reports, and of re-tweeting and re-broadcasting the corrections and verifications, as any traditional news source did — and arguably better. Disagree with me? Feel free to let me know in the comments, or on Twitter :-)
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