Thursday, September 23, 2010

On Pat Burns and the breaking of news stories in the online age

As we all know, Pat Burns died, and then didn't die last Friday in a classic instance of the media, both traditional and social, jumping the shark based on the word of former Toronto Maple Leafs stiff Cliff Fletcher.

Just before 11:30 AM Friday morning, two messages popped up Twitter exaggerating the condition of cancer-ridden former NHL coach Pat Burns. One was from @ctvottawa, the other from @FAN590. It was sad and depressing, for the 58-year old man who the Internet had once tried to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame at some point during his life, to see go too soon.

Then, just about a half-hour later, after a phone call from well-placed Bob MacKenzie to the Burns family, MacKenzie was able to set the story straight, and ended up with one of the quotes of the year from Pat Burns himself:

"Here we go again. They're trying to kill me before I'm dead. I come to Québec to spend some time with my family and they say I'm dead. I'm not dead, far fucking from it. They've had me dead since June. Tell I'm alive. Set them straight."

Okay, so how did we come to this? How was a reputable mainstream news station able to dupe the world into thinking that Pat Burns was dead? Why did they believe it?

Bruce Dowbiggin, (yes, THAT Bruce Dowbiggin) actually has a pretty good rundown of the morning where Pat Burns prematurely died.

It seems that around 11:30 Eastern time last Friday, Fletcher told some reporters what he had heard about Burns. A number of news outlets, without checking a primary source (IE: somebody from the Burns family) ran with it in an effort to get the 'breaking' coverage.

Dowbiggin incorrectly cites the genesis of Burnsdeath rumour, instead of holding Globe and Mail affiliate CTV Ottawa to task for being the first news outlet to tweet the report from Fletcher, Dowbiggin credits long-time rival and renowned steroids expert Damien Cox of the Toronto Star. Cox was quick to the punch, but ended up being beaten by CTV Ottawa in the end. Twitter does not keep time stamps, and incidentally, both Cox and CTV Ottawa deleted everything but their apologies.

Radio had it as well. During a routine sports update, the Team 1040 in Vancouver reported that "Pat Burns has died in Québec" on a show hosted by Scott Rintoul and Ray Ferraro. The initial Team 1040 report did not cite CTV Ottawa for the story, and from that we can deduce two things:

#1 - That Team 1040, or an affiliate, had a reporter among those who listened to Cliff Fletcher tell the world that Pat Burns was dead.

#2 - That we have at least three media outlets (incidentally, a television network, a print publication and a radio station) who did were scared that a different outlet would 'break' the story first, and thus failed to do the necessary legwork.

Within seconds, FAN 590 in Toronto popularized the 1040 report over Twitter, just as CTV Ottawa's message was making the rounds. Within just minutes of Cliff Fletcher telling reporters something he had yet to confirm from the Burns household, the Internet exploded.

A journalism professor I had who worked for the Canadian Press for a while always referenced a story about how the wire collected information on the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. The wire could only report confirmed bits of information as it came in, such as 'shots heard at Egyptian parade' followed by 'Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was confirmed present at the parade' and so on. It didn't take a genius to recognize what the report would be, but the idea is that the Canadian Press only worked with confirmed information. In the days before the 24-hour news cycle, an unconfirmed or factually incorrect piece of information meant that your newspaper would be on the streets all day with bad ink, and an egg on the face of the publisher. Now you can publish something and strike it offline before it's cached, or, if the story is true, update information as it comes in and claim you were the team to break the story.

But in the digital age, we always lose sight of who reported what first. When breaking news stories were confined to front pages, not only was your newspaper bought instead of the competition's, but the reporter who broke the story had a huge leg-up with the contact information of primary and secondary sources, and a full-day's head start on any follow-up story.

The lines are blurred, now. The public will now read the story for quality of reporting, writing and analysis, and not the story that came first. In the online age, the first report of a breaking event, such as the hypothetical death of Pat Burns, usually runs with a lot of quick information bits and is periodically updated throughout the day with the same rate of information as any blog would be able to get it as information is disseminated and confirmed over the Internet.

Numerous messages to both CTV Ottawa and the Toronto Star were not returned, for some reason. If Peter Angione, the news director for CTV Ottawa gets back to me at any point, I will be sure to update. A reporter at CTV Ottawa did tell me that they got the story from "a TSN reporter" who was presumably at Leafs camp and forwarded the false information as soon as the teary-eyed Fletcher made his appearance. To the credit of TSN, Sportsnet, the Globe and Mail and other media companies that employ Leafs beat reporters, they stayed silent.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe he was just pining for the fjords of Norway.