Pat Burns isn’t dead: Dispatch from the Twitter desk

I was still in journalism school the day a plane crashed in the Hudson River in early 2009. There was a class on New Media – I think the professor called it Journalism 2.0 – where my class taught about the internet and how it was revolutionizing journalism right in front of our eyes.

We sat in a room with a large overhead projector and watched the changes: ‘Weblogs’ hosted by WordPress and occasionally Blogger; News Bureaus that only existed in the online game Second Life; a little thing called Twitter I remember us spending exactly five minutes on.

The professor went on at length about how Twitter was a great form of citizen journalism – people, anybody really, could not just break news, but it was a great way to spread it around, too. She used the airplane crash as an example: people looking out windows tweeted as the airplane came in for a landing; people on a passing ferry put up the first pictures of the crash. As people tweeted and retweeted, the news spread faster than anybody could keep up with, people had found out about it before CNN broke onto the air with the story.

It’s that fast cheetah-like speed which sets Twitter apart from other social networking or blogging mediums. The pace on Twitter is punishing, relentless. The more people you follow, the faster updates come in and it’s hard not to get lost in the sheer flow of information; sometimes it feels like being in a wave pool that keeps pounding you under the water.

So when something actually happens and a story breaks over Twitter, it literally moves like wildfire. It starts small, quickly explodes and it leaves a hell of a mess in it’s wake. The sports world saw this twice in recent months, once with Bill Simmons and another time over Pat Burns.

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As much as I want to write about the former – and I will, but not in depth, since Simmons has already covered it well – it’s the latter which caused the most havoc. A false, yet plausible story regarding the death of an ailing man went out and got passed around. It was a cruel and malicious lie, but it was really easy to believe.

A quick refresher: Burns is terminally ill with cancer and recently moved back to Quebec to spend time with his family. On the morning of Sept. 17, stories begin to fly around that he had died. Who broke it first? The CBC reported that CTV Ottawa and Team 1040, a radio station in Vancouver, were among the first media outlets to break the story. A report on Yahoo! put Toronto’s Fan 590 up in front also.

Before long, pretty much everybody I follow on Twitter was tweeting condolences, as was I. Both TSN and The Toronto Star published stories on the death. It took Burns himself to stop the rumour.

There’s a theory that TSN even had a draft obituary for Burns that was somehow obtainable by Google. This may be true but I cannot speak for TSN‘s editorial policies. However, I did write for CTV.ca, where I not only read a bunch of draft obituaries – including one for Ariel Sharon – but learned the editorial policy of their news desk. These drafts were accessible only from an in-house FTP server; for a story to even go to their website, it had to be composed in a publishing tool, then headlined – with the word HOLD in big letters – and bylined and saved as a draft.

Only then would the editorial desk give it a once over, remove the HOLD, add a picture and give it a spot to go live; they only had a few slots for live items on their home page. As for Twitter, I explicitly remember that only the news editor was allowed to access it: I tried more than once to get the afternoon editor to show me how it worked without success.

Essentially, what I’m saying is that if a draft did go live accidentally, it must have been a huge mistake by a TSN employee – or TSN‘s news desk felt the reports were strong enough to publish the obit.

What started the rumour – allegedly – was a report from Ray Ferraro, which from what I’ve found, was something he actually reported on-air after receiving a single email from a friend. If that was all he truly had, it was a huge lapse of journalistic integrity (although I’m sure Ferraro has never once considered himself a journalist).

But consider the circumstances: Burns is very sick. As callous as it seems to say, he probably is not long for this world. The word from a mutual friend of Burns and Ferraro’s is not entirely without merit. While it’s very easy to look back and say Ferraro acted irresponsibly, it’s sniping.

Thus, it boils down like this: If Ferraro was correct, it was a hell of a scoop. If he was wrong, it was some egg on his face. Does that mean he was in the wrong when he sent off his report?

Well, online journalism is wicked cutthroat; being first is the difference between reporting a story and reporting somebody else’s story. ESPN‘s Bill Simmons wrote about this much better than I will when he said it’s not being first that people remember, it’s a track record of being correct. In so many words, it’s the difference between the Adrian Wojnarowskis of the world and the Peter Vesceys. But that opinion doesn’t drive journalism.

A few years ago, the Associated Press published a retrospective book on their past. Their cover was a photo of two men in suits racing down a hall: one was an AP reporter, the other from UPI. They were racing to a bank of telephones to call the rewrite desk, to report a breaking story (a court verdict, I think).

Then, just as now, being first was what drives journalism. Break a story and reap the rewards of the credit – the ego! the prestige! the glory of knowing it was you, the ace reporter, who informed the world! Do people get into journalism to become better writers? Sometimes, yeah. Do people get into journalism to feed their ego? Of course. You don’t know what ego feels like until you see your name attached to a story in print.

Over to Simmons for a second. He did the coin flip of Ferraro: he accidentally broke a news item, in his case a trade between the Minnesota Vikings and the New England Patriots. When he tweeted “moss Vikings” it literally exploded all over Twitter: I was on it that night and remember his tweet coming through (I thought he was making some kind of joke and messed up, personally).

Before long he elaborated it was a messed up Direct Message about a rumour he heard. Like I said, he wrote about this topic better than I can, so read his piece if you’re inclined for more details. I only refer to him to support my argument: Twitter moves so fast, it’s hard to trust anything that breaks across it.

It sounds obvious, when one sees it in black and white like that. Of course you shouldn’t trust anything that doesn’t come from a reputable source. But I know many people – including people who work in communications or journalism – who have been fooled by tweets spreading inaccurate information: Burns’ death reports, false Amber Alerts, etc.

What happened on Sept. 17 was hardly unique. Many deaths have been misreported on Twitter: Burns, Gordon Lightfoot and the National Post, among others.

In each case a kernel of truth had been stretched beyond the breaking point and was reported as fact. It’s as if once something moves on Twitter, that qualifies as a news source and that’s enough to pass it along; the act of retweeting a news item is paramount to saying you believe it. I don’t blame Ferraro or CTV Ottawa for what they did. They fell to the same trappings we all do.

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I really wish I had the same enthusiasm for the medium my professor did. She was a smart women, an award-winning journalist before moving to teaching. Her faith in technology and the people who use it is nowhere near as jaded as mine. Where I see only potential for chaos and spin, she saw a real opportunity for a revolution in media. Where I see the anarchy of Bleacher Report, she saw crowd-sourcing of sports opinion.

That’s the problem with citizen journalism. TSN took down the obituary for Pat Burns; CTV Ottawa apologized and deleted their tweet; Ferraro apologized and said he should have confirmed with a second source. Those are all exactly what they should do.

But what of the rest of us? What about the people who spread the reports as fact? It wasn’t CTV or TSN alone who told everybody, it was myself, yourself, everybody who RT’d, who passed along the news.

It’s worth wondering if we’re just as guilty.

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Readers Comments (1)

  1. Excellent story Mark! News travels so fast on twitter it can be a powerful tool but as you said, when the news is false it can cause chaos.

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