Culture

Tom Petty and the 24-Hour News Cycle's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform during halftime of Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 3, 2008, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Legendary rocker Tom Petty died the afternoon of October 2, 2017. Wait…scratch that. Turns out he didn’t pass away on Monday afternoon, and for several hours, Petty’s fans didn’t know what to believe.

The news media jumped the gun and began to report Petty’s death Monday afternoon, shortly after lunchtime on the West Coast. TMZ, the paparazzi and Hollywood gossip site that has somehow become a legitimate source of celebrity news, featured the story that now includes corrections disguised as updates.

CBS followed not long after, and I personally tweeted their link, which has also since been corrected.

See, I’m not immune.

The New York Times even called out CBS for its rush to scoop the world:

When CBS reported Mr. Petty’s death on Twitter, preceded by a capitalized banner “JUST IN,” the network attributed the news to the Los Angeles Police Department. In an article published online, there was no mention of the L.A.P.D., merely the phrase “CBS News has confirmed.” (CBS later deleted the tweet.)

Numerous other news outfits, including Entertainment Weekly, Slate and HuffPost, soon posted articles about Mr. Petty’s death, all attributing the news to CBS…

But about an hour after the CBS report went online, the Los Angeles Police Department said it could not confirm his death, setting off mass confusion on social media over Mr. Petty’s actual condition.

Sirius XM’s own Tom Petty channel, which the rocker has personally had a hand in for years, even went briefly into in memoriam mode before realizing the news was premature.

Unfortunately, Petty did pass away later Monday night after hours of scrambling and speculation. TMZ and CBS choosing to jump the gun and report a superstar’s death prematurely led to nearly eight hours of confusion and misunderstanding — not to mention legions of devastated fans. It was tough news on an already difficult day.

The problem with the Tom Petty story demonstrates one of the biggest issues with the 24-hour news cycle. And I’m not talking about those endless celebrity death hoaxes or repeated obituaries, either. (How many times has Andy Griffith died, based on the number of times his actual 2012 passing pops up on Facebook as new information?)

In the race to be first with a breaking story, accuracy often comes second. Nearly every day we see media outlets breathlessly reporting something new only to have to walk it back later. Other news channels and websites break a scoop with little or no credibility.

Often the damage is done before a journalist, website, or publication can issue a correction. A big story can generate retweets and clicks, but more often than not, the correction doesn’t create the same buzz that the original false or sloppy story does.

Journalists fall over each other just to be first and to fill space — whether it be airtime or web pages. The end result is that we have unreliable and sometimes empty stories. As public relations blogger Wendy Bulawa Agudelo put it back in 2015:

The disappointing reality is that the media is under so much pressure to produce that, without something useful, cool, creative and newsworthy, it has to reach really deep and winds up grasping at fumes.

So, is this problem with the press likely to go away anytime soon? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. The siren’s lure of the “breaking news” headline is too strong to resist, and as long as instant information attracts clicks or lures viewers to a program or newscast, we won’t see the end of the cycle of pushing out content now, only to issue a correction later. We might as well get used to the modern news cycle because it’s here to stay.